The Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Baltimore on Nov. 8 to propose a reallocation of $70 million in funds currently allocated by the state for a new juvenile jail.

Jackson, City Council President Jack Young, local ministers and others organizers of the event at the War Memorial were advocating for a reallocation in favor of "affirmative opportunities."


Such opportunities include proven alternatives to detention: recreational activities, jobs programs and neighborhood redevelopment, all aimed at changing daily life for Baltimore youth.

With opportunities, young people commit fewer crimes and the path of their daily lives changes. Think of north Baltimore.

I was not able to attend the event, which drew more than 200 people, because I was volunteering at Cylburn Arboretum, itself home to an array of programs for city youth.

For years, I have heard about "affirmative opportunity" from one of the rally's organizers, Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of Baltimore's Safe and Sound Campaign. Ferebee is a Roland Park Country School graduate and knows first-hand what opportunities can do for children.

North Baltimore is a world away from the daily struggles of those in poverty. Never do our children wonder about having an adult to take care of them or a place to live. Our children do not have to raise themselves or fear they might be caught in the gunfire of warring criminals.

Our children go to school every day, participate in a plethora of recreational programs and usually start work as preteen babysitters, dog-walkers or community volunteers. The number of outstanding private and public schools within walking distance speaks to the enriched lives of our fortunate children.

When I watched a television interview with Rev. Jackson after the rally, he spoke about how jails themselves are an improved condition for many city juveniles. He pointed out that in jail, young people have three meals a day, a bed, some dental and health care, and time spent with friends. (Those conditions are readily available in less impoverished neighborhoods.)

He also pointed out that this is not the path society should encourage. The path of education, job training and productive lives as responsible citizens is the better goal.

According to Safe and Sound literature, Gov. Martin O'Malley commissioned a study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The NCCD study determined that the state, to comply with federal regulations, did not have to build a new jail in order to keep juveniles separate from adult detainees.

The report detailed how funding alternatives to detention and more efficient detainee management procedures, sometimes in community-based programs, would maintain public safety and improve outcomes for the young in the criminal justice system. Some state agencies, in fact, already provide alternatives to incarceration with better results than detention, at a fraction of the cost, the report stated.

While funds for building a juvenile jail have already been approved, activists said Thursday that there is room at existing facilities and the money could be reallocated for programs with longer-lasting, positive effects.

When I think of a sparkling new, state-of-the-art juvenile jail, I think of the often-misquoted line from the film "Field of Dreams:" "If you build it, he will come." I picture young men and women walking in clusters up trash-littered streets, past boarded vacant homes toward this sparkling jail.

I think of the $6 billion adults spent on political campaigns that ended two days before Rev. Jackson came to Baltimore. I also think of what my mother said to me after her stroke in 1996: "Don't forget the children downtown."

The easy thing is to forget the children downtown, to give up on their potential, to use $70 million for new construction and say: "We have a beautiful new facility. We're doing everything possible to keep our city safe."


Are we?