Planned youth jail to shrink as arrests are projected to decline

Construction of facility to house youth charged as adults will be delayed further

May 13, 2011|By Liz F. Kay and Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

State prison officials are reducing the size of a proposed youth jail in East Baltimore, a move that could delay by a year construction of the $70 million detention center originally designed to hold up 230 young offenders.

The announcement comes after advocate groups opposed to the facility — who say money would be better spent on other programs — commissioned a study that shows the number of teen arrests is projected to decline over the next three decades.

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit dedicated to juvenile justice research based in Oakland, Calif., released a report on Thursday concluding that just 117 beds will be needed over the next 30 years under current sentencing guidelines and policies.

Maryland had planned to start building the detention center last fall but agreed to wait for the council's findings.

"The report clearly shows there are other options that are just more fiscally responsible and also do not compromise public safety in the state of Maryland," said the Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore and a community leader.

The study found that the number of beds could be reduced even further if some sentencing practices are changed, such as housing youths within the juvenile justice system while they await trial.

But those changes require discussion and action by the courts and elected officials, said Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "Those are all based on probably good theory, but it still becomes a situation where legislators have to change the law," he said.

Maynard said corrections officials are still studying the report — paid for by the state, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore and the Annie E. Casey Foundation — but he expects a committee to be formed so corrections officials, judges, prosecutors and youth advocates can determine what size jail is appropriate.

The facility could be adapted to fit the new number of beds, or it could be redesigned from the ground up, Maynard said. A redesign could push the bidding process out more than a year before construction could begin on the site off East Madison Street, between Graves and Forrest streets.

About $14 million has already been spent on planning, design, demolition and site preparation. The most recent construction bid was $69 million, Maynard said, although rising gas prices could drive up the cost of materials. Earlier cost estimates were $100 million.

Opponents of the jail project had asked Gov. Martin O'Malley last year to stop it from going forward and to redirect funds into other programs, such as recreation centers and school construction. But state officials said at the time that it was unlikely to be derailed entirely, though it could be reduced in size.

Monique L. Dixon, director of the criminal and juvenile justice program for Open Society Institute-Baltimore, called the decision to reduce the size of the jail a step in the right direction. "We suspected the original projection was incorrect, and the results were exactly as we expected," she said.

Dixon said she looks forward to discussing the more cost-effective scenarios presented in the report with state and local officials. "They will result in better outcomes for young people, and they will also save the state money," Dixon said.

Youths facing adult charges in the city are locked in part of the Baltimore City Detention Center, a practice criticized by federal authorities because it doesn't adequately separate youth and adult offenders.

While the delay in building the new jail prolongs the current arrangement, it will be better for youths over the long term, Dixon said. "I think it's worth the wait to just make a smart decision about how we should ensure public safety and keep youth on track," Dixon said.

Laurie Bezold, a managing partner of Fusion Partnerships Inc., one of several advocacy organizations that have come out against the state's plans for the facility, said the report "absolutely" strengthened the coalition's message that the state's plan overestimated the number of beds needed.

"You're talking about 30, 40 people then, versus 100 or so," Bezold said. "Part of the work of the coalition will be to continue to get that message out that there's no need for this jail."

Among the trends affecting the study's findings is the decline in Baltimore's youth population. The report cited census data indicating a 17 percent drop in the youth population in the city since 2000.

Serious violent and property crime has dropped by more than a third since 2000, and the number of 14- to 17-year-olds arrested in 2003 had declined by more than half by 2010. These data mirror trends nationally and elsewhere in the state, according to the report.

Laura Furr, the senior director of youth justice initiatives at Community Law in Action, said the report bolsters analysis that advocates have been providing to the state for years.

"I think that having [the national council on crime] really take a look at all the underlying data and make their own assessment of everything and working up a scenario has been huge," Furr said, pointing out that the report is based on data provided by the state. "We sincerely hope that they're going to really take a hard look at what their plans are and really take a hard look at the facts before they move forward."

Furr said she hoped the report would put a stop to the construction of the detention facility. "I think the report does an excellent job of showing how we can avoid building this jail entirely," she said.

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