A new jail won't fix Maryland's broken juvenile justice system

  • 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 17, 2012

We agree with The Sun that a proposed $70 million juvenile jail will do nothing to address the real problems with Maryland's juvenile justice system and that the whole policy of charging minors as adults needs rethinking ("A broken system," Aug. 7).

There is no reason to believe that a new taxpayer-funded building will change the culture and climate for youth charged as adults in Baltimore. Correctional officers will still be employees of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and the lengthy delays between arrests, hearings and trial will persist.

Education will take a back seat to lockdowns, staff shortages and safety concerns. And the goal of the institution will still be incarceration rather than the Department of Juvenile Services' stated mission of rehabilitation leading to "successful youth, strong leaders, safer communities."

The debate over the proposed jail serves to mask the real problem: Only a handful of youth charged as adults end up serving time in adult prisons. The rest end up either back on the streets, having never received the help they needed, or in a juvenile facility, where they eventually get the services they should have received months earlier.

By law, the Department of Juvenile Services already detains juveniles for pretrial detention, including those accused of serious crimes. They are held in a setting that offers rehabilitation programs, consistent schooling under the auspices of the state Department of Education and staff trained to facilitate their transition back into the community with appropriate services. Spending $70 million to construct another new facility run by a different state agency simply makes no sense.

DJS is not without its own issues. But the public debate should be focused on what it will take to make that agency a model for youth rehabilitation for the rest of the country, not on a disingenuous "get tough on criminals" mentality that is backed up by neither the facts nor the smart use of taxpayer dollars.

Terry Hickey and Amy Walters, Baltimore

Mr. Hickey is executive director of Community Law in Action. Ms. Walters is an attorney with the Maryland Disabilities Law Center. Both are part of the JustKids Partnership, which seeks to reduce the number of youth tried and charged as adults in Maryland.

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