Open for good

November 03, 2003

FINALLY, KIDS are sleeping in the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. While that may not be such good news for these boys - who face judgment for their deeds - it's great news for the system.

At the intake center in the new North Gay Street facility, police, Department of Juvenile Services workers and court staff work together to shave months off the time between a child's arrest and his first court date. New courtrooms and waiting rooms are ready for the district's juvenile court, which is to move from the dregs of the ailing Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. building to the new center in two weeks. There's space for social workers, doctors and others who can talk with kids and with one another to better tailor rehabilitation plans for each child.

This is the first short-term holding facility in Baltimore, which usually has about 70 juveniles assigned for detention.

Before last Thursday, kids who were to be held even briefly had to be driven back and forth from the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County or the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School. Now they are close to their advocates and their parents, and can stay in the facility's classrooms until called to court.

Though clearly needed, getting the center up and running has been tortuous. Since the first stirrings of political will for a coordinated juvenile center in 1992, DJS has run through five department secretaries and Baltimore City District Court has weathered a decade of neglect.

Centralized intake started this year, but it could have started in fall 1996, when plans to take over space at Courthouse East fell through. City political sniping in the mid-1990s over where to build the center nearly lost the project its funding, a dangerously short-sighted argument since the city was piggybacking the court part of the building onto the state's DJS budget. Opening dates have been scheduled each year since 2000.

But start-up often is the hardest part; those who work in the center must set aside the old headaches and concentrate on their kids. It's especially important to continue trimming the time it takes for detained juveniles to go through hearings to placement. The three compact holding pods are for short stays only; they're not suitable as homes for children.

DJS also needs to keep its legislatively mandated promise to downsize Cheltenham within three months, and should immediately move city kids now there to the new center. These kids shouldn't suffer another month far away when beds are ready in Baltimore.

As a physical symbol of a community's empathy for kids and their families and its sense of duty to justice, the new green-glass-and-red-brick block is inspiring. What happens inside must be equally so.

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