New juvenile justice center symbol of system's troubles

September 07, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MARCUS Dixon stood there on Gay Street with all the wisdom of his 21 years informing him that he is an urban cliche. He is a school dropout, a repeat criminal offender, a father without benefit of wedlock. He promises to do better. In the city of Baltimore, all of the above puts him among the tens of thousands.

He came to Gay Street because this is where they keep the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, the new $62 million facility described by critics as a disastrous piece of a system that is described as a catastrophe.

Many of these critics showed up the other evening to express their collective anguish. Politicians and ministers and aggrieved parents stood there in a big circle on the sidewalk and vented as traffic chugged past. They said young inmates kill time at these juvenile facilities playing cards and watching TV when they should be getting schooling and psychological counseling. They described unsafe conditions. They questioned a governor named Ehrlich who famously attacked the juvenile system when he ran for office but now appears to consider it an afterthought.

What nobody mentioned was the thing that takes in the history of Marcus Dixon and tens of thousands like him who populate this system.

"When all these kids were getting into trouble," Dixon was asked in a quiet moment, "where were their parents?"

"Up the street at Central Booking," he said without hesitation.

Dealing, he means, with their own legal troubles.

"How many of your friends grew up with two parents in the house?"

"None."

"How about you?"

"I see my father," he said, "about once every four years. My father didn't know his own father till he was 29 years old. My father's in and out of prison, same as most of the kids' fathers in there." He pointed to the juvenile justice building.

"They have one thing in common," he said. "Street smarts. That's how they communicate. My father came out of prison and came by my mother's house. He said, `I got some cocaine. You want to come out here and help me out?' So you say, `Mom, I hear you telling me to be good, but what about Dad?' It's the only relationship you have with him."

Dixon said his record includes three drug charges and an assault. The worst he's gotten is probation. Blaming judges is too easy. In a city with roughly 10,000 juvenile arrests a year, where would you like them to put these kids? So the judges hand out probation to all but the worst. Or the kids get community service, and maybe a small fine, and a stern admonition.

"When you hear that judge tell you, `I don't want to see you in my courtroom again,' it scares you," Dixon said. "You're afraid. But you walk out, and you're back with your friends, and you're not thinking what the judge said."

So it was a fine gathering on Gay Street the other evening. Their complaints are important. This new juvenile justice center, for example, was built to house 88 inmates but is currently staffed for only 44 offenders. And there are now reportedly 117 inmates inside. Such numbers are reflected across the whole juvenile system.

"When he ran for governor," said Sharon Rubinstein, house counsel for Advocates for Children and Youth, "Robert Ehrlich trashed the system and called Kathleen Kennedy Townsend incompetent because it was her job. But the same conditions are still here. You can't preach caring if you won't fund it. It runs on personnel, not promises."

"Ehrlich campaigned on this, he beat Townsend over the head with it," said Cameron Miles, community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "He said he'd reform juvenile justice. Well, where's the reform? Young people are being warehoused, not rehabilitated, and the state is failing to take steps that could help."

"This is not rocket science," said Del. Bobby Zirkin, who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice. "We have all these big facilities for juveniles. They don't work. We need small places, where they can get education and counseling. You can't manage a big place like this, or Hickey or Cheltenham, where they have hundreds of inmates. There shouldn't be more than 30 offenders in any one place. Until we see that happen, we'll know that all the talk about improving the system is nothing more than talk."

But it raises that other essential question: Why are these kids here in the first place?

"We've lost our way," Sen. Nathaniel McFadden said. He spoke through a bullhorn to several dozen gathered in this circle around him. "We're losing our youth because we've lost the lessons we were brought up with." Then he got personal. "Black men need to step to the plate," he said. "We have to do it for our own people. Nobody else can do it for us."

Which gets us back to Marcus Dixon, standing there with better days ahead of him. He says he now helps counsel young offenders and keeps himself clean. He says it is several years since he's been in trouble.

"I have a son now, 17 months old," he said. "I don't want to break down my pride."

"Do you live with him?" he was asked.

"No." He laughed. "But I'm not gonna do what my father did. I'm gonna take care of my son."

On such promises rests a child's future, and a city's.

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