Deterring youth crime

Our view: The long-term challenges for the juvenile justice system go far beyond the lifting of federal oversight at the city's troubled youth detention center

August 16, 2010

It's certainly welcome news that conditions in the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center have improved enough to persuade the U.S. Department of Justice to lift federal oversight of the youth lockup it has held under scrutiny since 2007. But just because the facility has been found to be "in substantial compliance" with minimum federal standards doesn't mean officials there won't continue to face huge challenges dealing with the city's most troubled youths.

The center, which opened in 2003, was originally intended to house up to 144 youths, most of whom were either awaiting trial in the juvenile court system or long-term placement in a rehabilitation program. It was touted as a model facility that allowed officials to protect youthful defendants accused of serious crimes by holding them separately from hardened adult criminals.

But by 2007, when the state voluntarily agreed to allow federal monitoring of the facility, the center had witnessed a wave of violent incidents, including brutal fights among inmates and assaults on staff members. Among the safety improvements sought by federal monitors were more-effective education and behavior management programs and a suicide-prevention initiative targeting vulnerable youths. And though the center was never intended to serve as a treatment facility, it also became apparent that many of the young people there needed some form of psychological or emotional counseling to get their lives back on track.

The lifting of federal oversight shows that state officials have made some progress in addressing those needs, but it's important to keep the extent of those advances in perspective. Conditions at the center may no longer be so terrible that they require federal oversight, but that's a very low standard. What's needed are programs that help troubled youngsters turn their lives around before they commit the kind of serious crimes likely to land them in the adult court system.

The need is particularly urgent for the violent repeat offenders who fall through the cracks of the current juvenile justice system because they are too young to be treated as adults, yet too dangerous to be on the streets.

That dilemma was highlighted last year by the case of Lamont Davis, a Baltimore teen who critically injured a 5-year-old girl with a stray bullet while shooting at another teen. At the time, Mr. Davis was already under Department of Juvenile Services supervision and awaiting trial on another charge in juvenile court.

Maryland is planning to build a new $100 million detention facility in Baltimore to house youths charged as adults. But there would be less need for such a costly facility if there were more effective intervention programs at youth lockups like the Juvenile Justice Center. Ultimately, the success of any youth detention facility should be judged not by when the Justice Department declares conditions there are no longer intolerable, but by how well it deters troubled youngsters from the self-destructive behaviors that lead them into a life of crime.

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