Just before the holidays, the Governor quietly submitted a letter to chairmen of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Committee on Appropriations. The letter includes a new recommendation that the State spend millions of dollars to build a 120-bed facility for youth under 18 charged as adults rather than a 180-bed facility, as originally planned.
There is no need to build this jail and I urge the Governor to consider instead the wisdom of an independently commissioned report as well as good old-fashioned fiscal restraint. As the State wrestles with a billion dollar deficit, we hope the Governor—at the very least—will delay awarding contracts for the construction of the new jail for one year until June 30, 2013.
A year ago, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, along with Open Society Institute-Baltimore and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, commissioned an independent report from the National Council on Crime Delinquency to assess how many beds might be needed for youth under 18 charged as adults. The report determined that projections are much lower than originally thought. But in addition to projecting a much smaller bed count, the report made concrete, pragmatic recommendations which could avoid the need to build any facility and still protect public safety. These recommendations could be implemented almost immediately—costing the State considerably less money.
What many people don’t know is that the number of youth arrests has dramatically decreased since 2006. Just last year alone, there was an average of only 67 youth held at the Baltimore City Detention Center on any given day. And, according to the National Council report, over half of those young people had their cases dismissed outright or were sent to the juvenile court. These facts do not justify building a new jail for 120 kids that could ultimately be mostly empty.
An alliance of over 30 organizations has asked the Governor to eliminate the need for a new youth jail altogether by following these specific recommendations:
- Remove youth from adult jails and place them in juvenile detention facilities.
- End the practice of automatically charging youth as adults.
- Invest in youth by reallocating funding for the proposed youth jail to the creation of facilities and programs that offer opportunities to Baltimore City youth.
If we put these recommendations into practice, the potential for success is great. On the other hand, spending almost $80 million to build a new youth jail without first testing the recommendations made in the National Council report, which this administration commissioned, makes very little fiscal or programmatic sense in this economic recession.
Moving ahead with construction is a waste of human capital and money, and will result in a lost opportunity to support the success of Baltimore’s most vulnerable youth. We need to just say “no.”
This post was originally aired as a commentary on WYPR 88.1 FM. Listen to this commentary and others.