Juvenile center home to despair

Five years after opening, Baltimore facility is widely viewed as a monumental failure

Sun Special Report

May 25, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun Reporter

The pristine new $50 million building on Gay Street was envisioned as an antidote to the city's disorganized juvenile justice system. Just five years later, the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center is widely viewed as a failure - a building rife with violence and in need of radical transformation.

State Public Defender Nancy S. Forster says, "The whole thing ought to be torn down and rebuilt." State Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a juvenile justice reform advocate, calls it a "poorly configured monstrosity." And Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore identifies it as the "most perplexing and challenging" juvenile facility in the state.

It is the 144-bed detention wing of the complex, which also includes courtrooms and child welfare offices, that has proved to be the building's albatross. Juvenile advocates call it a Supermax prison for teenage boys, a facility at odds with the rehabilitative mission of juvenile services.

Designed to house youngsters for 30 to 45 days as they await trial, in recent years it has become a warehouse for juvenile delinquents who stay for months awaiting placement at more appropriate places. That stagnation, combined with the what some call an inappropriate layout, persistent staffing problems and the influx of street-hardened youths, can push the facility beyond its capacity and turn it into a powder keg.

Allegations of violence - group disturbances and youths assaulting one another and workers - shot up 46 percent in the first four months of this year, compared with the same period last year. This year, 304 youths have been charged with new crimes while at the justice center, according to the Maryland State Police, which handles investigations there.

Out of control

Meanwhile, teachers there complained in March that the staff had "lost control" of the youths. A report released Tuesday by the state's independent juvenile justice monitor concludes that "physical conditions and levels of violence at this facility continue to be of great concern and appear to be worsening rather than improving."

Last month, a residential adviser trainee was knocked out when six youths hurled chairs at him; he needed a neck brace and nine stitches to the back of his head. In December, a youth playing cards was jumped by other juveniles; he was kicked and stomped so badly that his skull was fractured and his jaw dislocated.

Both attacks were so serious that the accused assailants were charged as adults - something that juvenile advocates say shows just how out of control the justice center has become.

"When a juvenile facility becomes a place where adult charges are generated, that is a full-scale indictment," said Stephen Bergman, supervising attorney in the state public defender's juvenile protection office. "There cannot be a bigger failure of the system than that."

DeVore says that justice center reform is a top priority. Late last year, he added 48 positions there, bringing its number of DJS workers to 233. Those employees have received new training in violence de-escalation. To keep the youths busy and out of trouble, DeVore launched mentoring and after-school programs, such as drumming and chess.

The secretary acknowledges, however, that the only real solution is to sharply decrease the justice center's population; his goal is a cap of 100 youths. He believes that will begin happening in the coming months as community detention alternatives become available, and even more so in the coming years as four planned new facilities are constructed.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who brought DeVore to Maryland from Connecticut last year, said he was "never under any illusion that progress would be something to happen overnight."

But juvenile advocates say the youths and workers inside can't wait any longer. Some want the justice center's capacity slashed to 70 or lower - and right away.

"The justice center has never worked appropriately," Forster said. "It's a bleak place that breeds hopelessness."

An architectural assessment of the 95,000-square-foot detention area, commissioned last year by DeVore, indicates that it "is overcrowded in every department" and, according to national standards, should be 50 percent larger.

Students must receive about six hours of education per weekday, but there are just six classrooms, each of which can accommodate 12 students.

Hallways are barely wide enough for three people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The cafeteria holds 24 youths. Outdoor recreation is limited to two diamond-shaped concrete courtyards.

DeVore has helped build about 10 juvenile facilities across the country. When he toured the justice center after becoming secretary last year, he said he was struck by its "nightmarish design."

Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, head of juvenile court during the development of the justice center, said, "A lot of consideration and good intention went into that building." But, he added, "It really ended up being much more of a hard jail than we wanted it to be."

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