Action due on juvenile center pact

State panel expected to approve contractor to build city facility

`Doesn't make sense'

$41 million building to have courts, offices and a detention unit

May 05, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The state is finally moving ahead with plans for a $41 million Juvenile Justice Center that is designed to alleviate overcrowded, antiquated conditions in Baltimore's system for dealing with youthful offenders.

The Board of Public Works is expected to award the construction contract for the 240,700-square-foot building today. The long-delayed project -- occupying 5.1 acres on the site of the former Hillen Tire outlet on Hillen Street near Old Town Mall -- is scheduled to be finished in summer 2001.

The center, which will include courts, offices and detention facilities, is considered a centerpiece of the redevelopment of East Baltimore's Gay Street corridor.

It will replace the cramped Juvenile Court facilities in the bowels of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, where conditions have been described as "Dickensian" and compared with those in Third World countries.

"It was always the stepchild," said Susan P. Leviton, head of the clinical law program at the University of Maryland Law School and founder of Advocates for Children and Youth. "It was in the basement of the courthouse. It had horrible facilities."

The new building's central intake facility and 144-bed detention unit will relieve city police of the expense of taking juvenile suspects to Cheltenham Youth Facility in southern Prince George's County, more than an hour away. Because Baltimore has no juvenile detention beds, city youths are transported to Cheltenham, far from their parents and attorneys.

The project, in the works for at least seven years, has had "a torturous history," said Leviton.

Construction has been pushed back time and again by problems of site selection, neighborhood opposition and a complex procurement process.

When the current site was chosen in January 1996 -- after several others fell through -- building was expected to begin in late 1997 or early last year.

Peta N. Richkus, state secretary of General Services, said the project was put out for bid in June. Further delays added almost $1 million to the cost between September and March.

Even now, with neighborhood opposition largely mollified, the project remains a source of controversy. The board is expected to hear opposition to the contract today from the low bidder, which the state passed over in favor of a company that proposed a larger role for minority subcontractors.

The three-member board -- Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon -- is virtually certain to turn aside the challenge of the $41.1 million award to Poole & Kent Co. of Baltimore.

The Glendening administration has proposed that the contract go to Poole & Kent, and Dixon expressed support at a preliminary board meeting Monday. A spokesman for Schaefer said the comptroller had not decided about the contract.

A spokesman for W. M. Schlosser Co. Inc. of Hyattsville, whose $40.1 million bid is expected to be rejected, said the decision "doesn't make sense."

"We just don't know why the state would want to throw away $1 million," said Michael Cohen, general counsel for Schlosser.

State officials said the competition was conducted under a procedure that put considerable weight on the bidders' plans to use minority subcontractors and provide job-training opportunities for community residents. The General Services Department said the minority business participation in Poole & Kent's proposal exceeded Schlosser's by $1.6 million.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the emphasis on local economic benefits helped make the project palatable to the community, which is home to several correctional facilities.

"That was a commitment that was made when the project was first presented to the community leaders and elected officials from that area," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.

Judge David B. Mitchell, who was administrative head of Baltimore's Juvenile Court when the project was proposed, said it was "wonderful news" that construction was close to beginning.

"This is a critical piece for the plan of the revitalization of the juvenile justice system in Baltimore City," said Mitchell, who now administers the criminal docket of the city Circuit Court.

Besides the detention unit and intake area, the center will house 13 courtrooms and facilities for the state's attorney, public defender and social services agencies.

Mitchell said the center would spare young defendants the long, unproductive days they spend in holding cells in the basement of the courthouse awaiting hearings. Instead, youngsters facing an afternoon hearing in one of the new courtrooms could continue to attend class in the detention unit in the morning.

Leviton said that if children spend less time in detention, it will be a plus for the juvenile justice system. But she worried that the increased number of beds could result in longer stays.

"The issue is whether we'll take advantage of the better facilities to also improve court processes," she said. "A new building without improved court process does not make a better system."

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