Juvenile justice advocates call for grand jury inquiry at city detention center

Jail official disputes report, calls investigation a `waste'

November 05, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Advocates for juvenile justice reform called yesterday for a grand jury investigation of conditions at the Baltimore City Detention Center and the treatment of youths held there awaiting trial.

But LaMont Flanagan, the state official who oversees the facility said that, under state law, a grand jury tours the jail and reviews operations at least twice a year and has not found serious problems.

"They [grand jurors] already come in here every five months and do a thorough investigation," Flanagan said. "They have never found any inhumane conditions, or that it was an insecure facility. Why waste the taxpayers' money?"

The call for a grand jury investigation by the Public Justice Center in Baltimore and other groups followed a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch of what it described as appalling conditions for juveniles ages 14 to 17 at the city detention center.

The report examined four county-run detention centers in Maryland as well, but focused mostly on the city jail. It said youths there endure rampant violence and are being held in "dimly lit, dreary cells infested with vermin."

The report said youths awaiting trial do not belong in such facilities.

Flanagan said the report was exaggerated, and he disputed its findings.

But Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Public Justice Center, said the Human Rights Watch report contains serious allegations of abuse that need to be thoroughly investigated by a grand jury.

Smith said the regular grand jury reviews that now take place, which also are common in many other states, tend to be "show tours." Jurors are told what correctional officials want them to hear and see what officials want them to see, he said.

"We think there needs to be an intensive investigation, where they call people to testify under oath, subpoena records, interview the children and hire an expert to come in to look at the conditions," Smith said. "They should really do a serious investigation -- not simply accept what they are being told."

This week, Smith delivered a letter to the city state's attorney's office and to Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller formally asking for a grand jury investigation of the jail.

The letter says the Human Rights Watch report exposes serious violations of Maryland and federal law and includes "very serious allegations of official misconduct and abuse of children."

The Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition -- which includes the Public Justice Center and other advocacy groups -- supports the request for a grand jury inquiry, according to the coalition's director, Heather A. Ford.

Ford also called on state officials to open the Baltimore detention center for scrutiny by citizens, policy makers and public officials. She said advocates have been denied access to it in the past.

Ford said the facility is embarrassing to Maryland. "It's a complete correctional disaster. No human being should be forced to live in those kinds of conditions, no matter what they've done."

Judge Heller said she just received the Human Rights Watch report and needs to discuss its findings with judicial colleagues and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

"It would be too early for me to say whether that [an intensive grand jury probe] would be appropriate," Heller said. "There's no question that rather serious allegations and scenarios have been portrayed in the report."

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