Downsizing juvenile jail

Our view: A new report should prompt the O'Malley administration to build a smaller detention center for youths accused of adult crimes — and maybe to overhaul how those cases are handled

May 12, 2011

Baltimore needs a better way to handle juveniles who are charged as adults. The current system of housing them in a wing of the city's detention center is dangerous and inefficient. But a new report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency confirms what youth activists have been saying for six years — that a plan to fix the problem by building a $100 million, 230-bed juvenile jail next to the adult jail is the wrong approach. Gov. Martin O'Malley needs to scrap the current plan, which got its start under the Ehrlich administration, and at the very least propose something half the size, though some of the ideas in the report for further reducing the number of youths locked up while waiting for trials in adult court merit serious consideration.

Baltimore doesn't have anywhere near 230 such juveniles locked up now — the monthly average last year was 92. The reason the state committed to a plan to build a jail with so many beds dates to projections of the need for a facility made in 2007, at a time when, the report notes, Baltimore was experiencing an unusual spike in arrests and detention of youths for adult crimes. That was both because of an actual increase in offenses and also because of a confluence of law and policy changes that drove the numbers upward. Soon thereafter, the numbers started to decline, as they had been doing in the period before the original study was conducted.

That shouldn't be surprising. As the new report points out, crime has been decreasing in general in Baltimore, as in other cities, and the number of teenagers in the city has dropped sharply in the last decade. Less crime and fewer juveniles mean less need for a juvenile jail. This is a point Mr. O'Malley can hardly argue with; after all, he considers the decline in crime in Baltimore a signature achievement of his time in public office. Assuming those trends don't suddenly reverse, the council's report estimates a need for fewer than 120 beds during the 30-year life span of a new jail.

That's about the same level of need advocates were predicting when they pressured the O'Malley administration into agreeing to this study last year. At the time, administration officials suggested that if those numbers were borne out, they might build a facility of the same size as the one now planned but repurpose some of it for other uses. That would be a mistake. For one thing, if we don't have to spend $100 million, we shouldn't, particularly at a time when so many other needs are unmet. And it's unclear what other uses would be appropriate in a jail located in the middle of Baltimore's downtown prison complex. If the state builds a big jail, it will eventually fill it, quite likely with offenders who aren't a good fit for the space. The troubled history of Maryland's juvenile justice system proves the necessity of designing facilities carefully for the purpose for which they are intended.

While the state is reevaluating its plans, it should consider some of the other findings of the report, which suggest that even the number of juveniles we now lock up while waiting for trial in adult courts is far too high.

About two-thirds of the youth committed to the Baltimore City Detention Center eventually leave without a conviction in adult court — either they are sent back to the juvenile system, or they are found not guilty, have the charges against them dropped or are put on probation. Still, they spend an average of about three months locked up. The council suggested that the number of beds needed could be knocked down as low as 44 if we make legislative or policy changes to use the new facility only for those youth charged with offenses that are most likely to result in convictions in adult court. The rest would be diverted to Department of Juvenile Services facilities, or, where appropriate, to community supervision. Housing the teens in a juvenile facility is also likely to lead to better outcomes, since a jail managed by the adult prison system would not have the same kind of support and educational services for youth.

Of course, it's easy to look at past cases and see which ones could have been handled differently, but much harder to have confidence in such decisions when the outcomes are unknown. Compounding the difficulty in Maryland is the fact that its juvenile facilities are inadequate and have a history of escapes, violence and other problems. Any change to the state's current practice in the handling of youths charged as adults needs to be carefully thought out, but the sheer number of young offenders who are unnecessarily housed in adult jail shows that it's an exercise worth undertaking.

Fortunately, the O'Malley administration seems receptive to rethinking its plans. Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard said in a news release accompanying the report that he trusts the commission's projections and that they will be used to develop "the most appropriate strategy for managing this particular population of youth." Whatever form that takes, it is clear that the state owes thanks to advocates from the Safe and Sound Campaign, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Public Justice Center, the Community Law in Action Center, the Open Society Institute and other groups that protested the initial plans. Their intervention is likely to result in a more appropriate — and much cheaper — facility. If it leads to a smarter way of handling youths accused of serious crimes, all the better.

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