Powder keg

August 02, 2004

WHILE MUCH has gone right in the nine months since Baltimore's Juvenile Justice Center opened, a large part of it - the detention wing - has already gone wrong.

The lovely courtrooms and waiting areas are light-years better than the dungeon-like basement of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, where juvenile cases previously were heard. Space for prosecutors and public defenders, social workers, doctors and other caregivers in the same building helps families more efficiently get the services they need. And though not all the entrenched standoffishness and territoriality among departments has disappeared, just plain proximity - and regular interagency meetings - has cultivated closer cooperation.

But for the 150 or so boys who come through police intake into the Department of Juvenile Services' on-site detention facility each month, the experience isn't quite so respectful or uplifting. Windows, light fixtures and shower doors can be and have been broken and used as weapons or tools for further destruction. School lasts only half a day, then it's back to the holding cells. There is no green space.

Observers, workers and advocates call it a powder keg. And some detainees have matches.

The morning of July 15, detainees barricaded themselves into one of the dorm recreation areas, set a small fire in the counselor's office and refused to open the doors until the city police came in. On July 18, one inmate tried to hang himself using a sheet and the second-floor railing in the open recreation space; another inmate sounded the alarm.

And a growing population adds more tinder. DJS officials said in November that the department did not intend ever to reach the center's 144-bed capacity; judges, lawyers and child advocates have been pushing for a maximum of 40, though the population of Baltimore kids once held at Cheltenham Youth Facility, which this center was to take on, averaged around 70.

By May, the average daily population at the city facility was 88; in July, there were days when it reached 110, according to the department and the state's attorney's office. That means the department needs to use all three 48-bed "pods" when it has staffing for just one.

Maybe they could have seen this one coming. A dispute over where the money will come from has delayed starting alternatives to detention, such as a "reporting" center, where youths would go after school's out and before going home. That has left judges with the same old two options: the loose leash of community detention or confinement.

Kids who could better benefit from close attention as well as home time are instead housed with kids who must be detained. Their number continues to grow.

DJS held a job fair in late June in an effort to hire more staff; even if they were vetted and trained with all possible speed, they could not be in the center until summer's end. That's a long time to sit on a powder keg.

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