The failure of 'baby booking'

Baltimore's Juvenile Justice Center serves to harden criminals, not reform them

December 27, 2010|By Michael Nakan

Every year, Baltimore City asks: "Why?"

Why is the homicide rate in this city so high? Why is there such rampant addiction to drugs? Why are so many kids growing up to be violent criminals?

The answer may lie, in part, within the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, whose most striking feature is its sheer amount of infrastructure.

There is a school equipped with dozens of computers, a built-in basketball court and a lounge with video games and movies. On Thanksgiving, the center hosted a dinner for all of the juveniles in the facility and their parents.

But wait — isn't this just the place where kids are held before trial? Actually, no. Maryland law dictates that detention facilities must not only hold juveniles awaiting their trial but also adjudicated minors who are awaiting placement into rehabilitation facilities.

What that essentially means is that juveniles wait for their trials in the detention center, get adjudicated, and then are bounced back to the detention centers, where they await placement in a more permanent residential treatment facility, or RTF.

It is this interim period, a quirk unique to Maryland, that exacerbates some of the deep-rooted issues in Baltimore City. In addition to draining money and cramming these detention centers to the limit in order to try and accommodate all juvenile offenders awaiting placement, it also creates an environment where nonviolent offenders, convicted of petty crimes like trespassing or shoplifting, can be exposed to a far harsher peer group — including gang members — than they would have outside the facility. This has the potential for creating a more serious criminal inside of "baby booking," as the facility is known.

To compound the problem, the juveniles who commit the most violent crimes (and therefore are in need of the most immediate treatment) are frequently the hardest to place into one of these facilities. There is only one RTF in Maryland that even purports to take the most violent offenders: the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County. But after a riot in 2009, it has become less likely to approve a violent juvenile from Baltimore.

Usually, then, the most hardened offenders are sent out of state to privatized RTFs designed to deal with the most dangerous juveniles in the country. Maryland ends up footing the bill for transporting and supporting these minors.

But this is a slow and arduous process. A hardened offender can be awaiting placement into a private, out-of-state facility for weeks or even months. In addition to creating a society within the justice centers of "hardened" criminals, this bizarre stopgap also contributes massively to the overcrowding problem in the juvenile justice system and ultimately costs the state a huge amount of money (the cost of housing a juvenile at the Juvenile Justice Center is estimated at $400 a day).

And the worst part? The time spent waiting for placement — which, in extreme cases, can last for more than six months — doesn't count toward time served.

Wait time is wasted time, and that results in a torturously slow system that encourages repeat offenders, costs Maryland taxpayers an obscene amount of money, and is unfair to the adjudicated youths whom the system is supposed to be trying to help assimilate into law-abiding society.

Maryland simply needs more RTFs in state in order to better accommodate the adjudicated juveniles from Baltimore City and surrounding counties. If the state were to express interest in and subsidize the construction of private RTFs, they would massively boost the speed in which juveniles are moved through the system and increase both the efficiency and quality of rehabilitation.

Another solution is the expansion of nonresidential and alternative treatment for nonviolent offenders. If these "lighter" offenders were put back into their communities and served their time under house arrest with a GPS ankle bracelet, they would not be exposed to some of the corrupting influences so ingrained within the juvenile justice centers.

With Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore stepping down early next year, there is no better time to ask why such a fundamentally flawed system continues. The O'Malley administration remains content to paper over the problem.

Bottom line: A detention center should not have to provide schooling and long-term entertainment to adjudicated juveniles when its primary concern should be "detaining" them until their cases have been settled.

This gap between adjudication and placement is not a problem in other states — and it is not a problem that we can afford in ours.

Michael Nakan, a freshman at The Johns Hopkins University, was in the school's first "Baltimore and The Wire" class. He is from London. His e-mail is

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