Did you know that Maryland officials plan to spend almost $100 million dollars to build a new jail in Baltimore City? This jail would be used exclusively for youth, ages 14 through 17, who are arrested, charged as an adult and locked up as they wait for their trials to be held. In these hard economic times, we believe that a new jail is unnecessary and a waste of tax-payer dollars.
Fact no. 1: The new jail will be half empty. State officials plan to build a jail that will hold up to 120 young people who are charged as adults. But, this year, on any given day, only about 50 young people are held at the Baltimore City Detention Center, the city’s adult jail. And, because juvenile arrests have fallen in the past six years, experts predict that the number of youth charged as adults will continue to fall in years to come.
Fact no. 2: Most youth who are charged as adults do not belong in the adult criminal justice system. Maryland law allows a young person to be charged and tried as an adult if he is accused of committing one of a list of about 20 crimes that will automatically send him to an adult criminal court room. In Baltimore, the problem is that once these young people go to court, almost 70 percent of them will have their cases either dismissed outright or sent to the juvenile court system, which suggest that their cases did not belong in an adult criminal court in the first place.
Fact no. 3: Charging children as adults does not reduce crime. When Maryland began the practice of charging youth as adults back in the 1990’s, juvenile crime was on the rise nationwide. State officials believed that a “get-tough approach” would help end the crime wave. But, more recent national research has shown that automatically charging youth as adults does not reduce crime; if fact, it has the opposite effect. It turns out that young people who are handled in the adult justice system are more likely to be hardened by the experience and to commit more serious crimes when they are released.
Fact no. 4: A growing body of research has repeatedly shown something that we should all know. Children and youth are developmentally different from adults. Young people behave in ways that are impulsive and even illogical, but they are also more likely to respond well to counseling and other forms of rehabilitation. So, when youth are accused of committing a crime, they should receive services in a system designed especially for them – Maryland’s juvenile justice system.
But, these facts have not changed the minds of some Maryland officials. In our view, during hard economic times, instead of investing millions of dollars to build a new jail, state officials should end the practice of automatically charging youth as adults, so there will be no need to build a new jail for this population. But, officials should not stop there. I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens of young people. Some of them were charged as adults and are now giving back to their communities. When asked what they would do with $100 million, these wise youth said that they would use the money to improve schools and recreational centers and create jobs for Baltimore City youth. Maryland officials should follow their advice and redirect the money for the jail to build opportunities for city youth.
This piece was originally published on the Open Society Foundations’ blog.