Activists wage late attempt to stop youth jail

Project in the works for five years. Some call it poor use of precious dollars.

By Julie Bykowicz
The Baltimore Sun
June 17, 2010

Activists have launched a last-minute attempt to halt construction of a $100 million jail for Baltimore teenagers facing adult charges, saying the state needs to have a broader conversation about how to deal with young criminals.

Groundbreaking for the 180-bed facility, at the state-owned complex that includes a dozen other prison buildings just east of downtown Baltimore, is scheduled for this fall.

“This is a building that nobody wants and barely anybody knows about,” said Terry Hickey, director of the Community Law in Action Center, which tutors jailed teens. “It’s a myth that the state is ‘doing this for the kids.’ Building it is a choice, not a mandate.”

Officials say the state desperately needs a youth detention center.
Currently, juveniles facing adult charges ‹ often, violent offenders charged with murder or serious assaults ‹ are crammed into a wing of the antiquated Baltimore City Detention Center. The U.S. Department of Justice has long criticized the facility’s inability to separate teens from their adult counterparts.

“The state does not have the capacity to meet federal guidelines,” prison spokesman Rick Binetti said. “We think this is the best solution.”

The project has been in the works for five years, and the state has spent $12 million on planning, demolition and site preparation. But activists and some public officials say the project has not been well publicized. Eric Solomon of the Campaign for Youth Justice called the jail a “hidden secret.”

In a letter delivered this week to Gov. Martin O’Malley, a coalition of groups including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Public Justice Center and the Campaign for Youth Justice, asked for the state to press “pause.”

About 50 activists gathered outside City Hall on Thursday, shouting “books, not bars” and “education, not incarceration.” They’re planning a briefing next week, which prison system officials have agreed to attend, and are attempting to spread their concerns about the jail through e-mail, letters and word of mouth.

“It’s never too late to make a better decision, one with better outcomes for less money,” said Hathaway Ferebee, director of Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign, which recently organized the jail opposition. She said she learned of the project only this spring, when state lawmakers approved construction funds.

Activists worry that because the project has twice the capacity now needed for teens charged in adult cases, it will inevitably lead to more young people behind bars. “Guess what? If they build it, they fill it,” Hickey said.

Prosecutors, guided by law, determine whether to charge a teen as a juvenile or an adult. The allegations are then weighed by judges, who consider public safety risks when deciding whether defendants should be detained before trial.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he opposes the youth jail both for its location in an already prison-saturated area and for the “chilling” message it sends. A second $100 million jail project on those grounds, for women, is in development.

“It says to our kids, the only thing we’re interested in building for you is facilities that lock you up,” Young said. He said the money should instead be pumped into “proactive” anti-gang, education and jobs programs.

Advocates say the most dangerous youths need to be behind bars. But Ferebee argues that many could be monitored safely on the streets and that most juveniles charged as adults ultimately end up being prosecuted in the juvenile court system. A locked 120-bed facility for pretrial juveniles onGay Street downtown is routinely at or above capacity.

Of the 100 young men behind bars at the city detention center’s “youth wing,” 30 are charged with robbery with a deadly weapon, two dozen are charged with attempted murder and another dozen are charged with murder, according to prison officials.

That detention center, parts of which date to the early 1800s, is
dangerously crowded and unfit for juveniles, state officials argue. They say that retrofitting a building that old has proved nearly impossible. Although most counties run their own jails, the state oversees Baltimore pretrial services and jailing.

The layout also poses operational hurdles. The teens are required by federal law to attend school; they do so in trailers that they can reach only after walking through the men’s lockup. All movement of the adult prisoners must cease as the youths walk through. And there’s no space for any youth programming, such as counseling.

The Justice Department underlined concerns about the city’s handling of juvenile detainees in a scathing 2002 report that was more broadly critical of the Baltimore City Detention Center.

“Failing to sight-and-sound separate youth from adults in their living areas places them at serious risk of harm, by subjecting them to the undue influence and harassing behavior of adult inmates,” the Justice Department said.

Baltimore Sun