By Sam Smith
Opposition was strong at a Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing Wednesday on the proposed construction of a new youth detention center in Baltimore City to house youths charged as adults with violent crimes.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services plans to build a $70 million facility that corrects serious inadequacies in the confinement conditions for youths charged with serious criminal offenses in the Baltimore City Detention Center. The new building slotted for the 600 blocks of W. Monument and W. Madison Streets would alleviate the struggle to keep the youth separated from adult criminals, a serious problem at the city jail.
Witnesses pointed out that in the last five years, the number of juvenile homicides in Baltimore is down by 36%. Non-fatal juvenile shootings in the city have decreased nearly 70% in the last four years. Opponents of the new 120-bed detention center say that building the jail would be a waste of taxpayer dollars, considering that there are 42 youths (aged 14-17) currently incarcerated at the city jail.
More youths out in the counties, senator says
Committee vice-chair Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore City, noted that more youths are living outside of the city, and there is no need for a facility that large.
“If you look at the population trends more and more young people are in the surrounding counties,” McFadden said. “If you look out to the future, many of those young people are in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. They are someplace else.”
Gary Maynard, secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said that although the current population is declining, that could be an anomaly and change next year.
“While population will fluctuate over the next three decades, building for 120 beds will ensure the programming space will always be adequate to serve this population,” Maynard said. “This is something we currently continue to struggle with.”
Opponents said that if a 120-bed facility is created, law enforcement will try to fill it regardless of how low the crime statistics are.
Opponents suggest renovating alternatives
The most common suggestion by opponents is for a less costly retrofit to the former Baltimore Pre Release Unit for Women building to house the youth.
Del. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore City, testified that retrofitting an already existing building would allow the millions of dollars saved in construction to be used more productively elsewhere.
“According to estimates, the retrofitting of any facility, or even this pre -release facility, will take approximately 10 months and anywhere between two and five million,” she said. “A new facility would take three years and $70 million. With a current population of 43 residents that would be $1.6 million per youth.”
Washington added that rehabbing an already existing facility would employ more local skilled workers and do more for the city’s economy than a new construction project would.
Maynard said that the women’s pre-release building does not meet security requirements for youths charged with violent crimes such as murder and rape. He added that the facility does not have adequate space for educational programs, medical services, counseling groups and recreation.
Additionally, the site of the former women’s unit is on the Redline plan by the Maryland Transit Administration.
“If the women’s facility does not work out, we should look for another solution,” Washington said.
Baltimore City Council opposes the juvie jail
The Baltimore City Council passed a resolution in February that asks that the state to address this issue in a more fiscally responsible manner by redirecting the funds earmarked for the jail toward funding recreation centers instead.
“I have said many times that we have a juvenile justice system that is failing our children, and the answer is not to throw millions of dollars down the drain building a new jail,” Council President Bernard “Jack” Young wrote in testimony. “Many experts agree that instead of spending millions of dollars constructing an unneeded facility, that taxpayers’ money could be better spent on improved recreation facilities and programs which have been shown to actually reduce juvenile involvement with crime.”