Fight against jail plan heats up

Towson residents consult experts, seek to stall funding

Panel proposed

July 28, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Towson neighborhood leaders are escalating their fight against an expansion of the main Baltimore County jail, plotting a strategy that includes hiring independent criminal justice experts and lobbying state lawmakers to withhold funding for the project.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger believes community criticism could subside if leaders join an advisory panel that will study the jail's design and operations.

"They are upset now, but when a smaller group gets together, they will begin to understand. They will feel more secure," said Ruppersberger in an interview yesterday.

Ruppersberger proposed the advisory panel at a Wednesday night community meeting on jail expansion. The heated meeting featured an impromptu face-off between the executive and scores of Towson residents, but a day later it became clear that few minds were changed.

Residents feel they have been shut out of key decisions about why a 1,700-bed jail should be built on Kenilworth Drive. After voicing frustrations at Wednesday's meeting, they began to develop a plan to prevent the $75 million project from rising in their midst.

"I sensed that there was optimism," said Don Wright, president of the West Towson Neighborhood Association. "They are still madder than hell, but I think they are kind of hopefully optimistic."

Ruppersberger announced the Kenilworth Drive expansion this month, saying the project is needed to alleviate crowding and consolidate scattered jail programs. But neighbors immediately pounced on the proposal, wondering why they didn't learn of the plans earlier, and why no other locations were considered.

Critics are also trying to convince county officials that an expansion might be unnecessary.

Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor, said many inmates inside the Baltimore County Detention Center are awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes and can't afford bail. If those inmates had access to a lawyer at their bail hearing, they likely would be released more quickly, freeing up space for more violent offenders and relieving overcrowding, he said.

"If we're building a new jail for people who haven't paid their parking tickets, that's not a good use of money," Colbert said at the meeting.

Community leaders say they are considering hiring their own criminal justice consultant to put hard numbers behind Colbert's theory.

State. Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Cockeysville Republican whose district includes Towson, said yesterday that his staff is investigating whether sentenced inmates serving time in Towson could be moved to private prisons in other counties or states. If the Towson facility housed only those awaiting trial, expansion might not be needed, Harris said.

"This may be an opportunity to revisit the issue," Harris said.

Wednesday's meeting was organized by Baltimore County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican who remains skeptical that Ruppersberger's decision to expand the detention center can be overturned.

Ruppersberger changed his schedule Wednesday at the last minute to make introductory comments at the gathering before leaving for a birthday party for state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

But as he spoke with a reporter in the hallway on his way out, he heard criticism being hurled at him. So he turned and faced his detractors for more than an hour in a question-and-answer session that ranged from tense to tumultuous. He never made it to the party.

"He knew that he was walking into a dynamite keg last night, and he said the wrong thing and it exploded," said Dorothy Schirmer, president of the Towson Park Community Association, whose nose-to-nose verbal jabs at the executive were captured by three local television cameras. "That's what Dutch Ruppersberger needs to see, that the people in this district are upset about it."

At one point, Ruppersberger sought sympathy from the heated crowd of 75: "You think this is easy standing here getting beat on like this? It's not easy," he said. The comment drew immediate jeers from some audience members who wanted to know if the executive thought it was easy to live next to a large jail.

County officials say that consolidating several jail programs through the expansion is the most logical solution to a crowding problem that has been festering for at least five years. A larger jail can be designed with underground parking and an expanded lobby to address traffic and loitering complaints that arise from the current facility, officials say.

But community leaders are pledging to try to defeat a November bond referendum question, when voters will be asked to approve borrowing about half the money needed for the project. The bulk of the rest would come from state funds. They are promising to lobby state lawmakers against including jail money in next year's state budget.

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