Maryland doesn't need a $100 million juvenile jail

  • Pictured is the sleeping area in one of the communal cells of the annex building at city jail where juveniles charged as adults are held.
Pictured is the sleeping area in one of the communal cells of… (By Kenneth K. Lam, )
August 03, 2012

A recent article painted a vivid picture of the immense and often irrevocable harm young people face when held in adult jails and prisons ("Youth in city jail face 'deplorable' conditions," July 28). For this and other reasons, Advocates for Children and Youth believes a newly constructed juvenile jail is not the right way for the state to address these conditions.

First, the data show a significant reduction in youth arrests and that the majority of these youth end up in the juvenile system or have their cases in the adult system dismissed completely.

Second, housing youth in adult jails does nothing to improve public safety. There are other proven solutions that can be implemented. For instance, the Department of Juvenile Services has recently re-launched the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative in Baltimore City, an effort that is described as an entryway to overall system change.

This initiative is also a way to make juvenile justice systems smarter, fairer, more efficient and more effective. While this work is underway, it is not fiscally responsible to spend nearly $100 million on a building that will go largely unused as reform efforts progress and produce success. As an alternative, the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit for Women could be rehabbed at a fraction of the cost and provide a temporary solution to the deplorable conditions.

Virginia and Pennsylvania have shown us how to take steps to simultaneously protect youth and communities. Virginia holds youth tried in adult court in juvenile detention centers before trial and will only place juveniles in an adult facility if there is reason to believe the young person poses a security threat. In Pennsylvania, a judge can allow juveniles to be held in an age-appropriate facility while their adult charges are pending, which gives them access to rehabilitative services.

TheU.S. Supreme Courthas ruled that children must be treated differently from adults. When dealing with young people who have been arrested but not convicted of any crime, we have an opportunity to make decisions that impact the rest of their lives. If these were your children, what would you want for them?

Angela Conyers Johnese, Baltimore

The writer is director of juvenile justice at Advocates for Children & Youth.

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