“I was one of those kids who got in trouble,” said Sen. C. Anthony Muse, standing in front of the fenced cite proposed to be the home of an $80 million dollar effort to help city youth: a juvenile detention center.
A product of 11 foster homes and a student expelled from three schools as a child, Muse says he more than likely would have been in prison had more resources and energy been focused on locking youth up during his adolescent years. “Today instead of sitting in a jail cell, I sit in a senate seat so that I can support persons and help them know that jail is not the alternative for our young people,” said Sen. Muse, who credits mentorship and youth programming for saving his life.
Support to stop the building of the new facility to house Baltimore youth charged as adults continues to gain momentum with the help of an alliance, nearly 30 organizations strong, that includes the Maryland Education Coalition and the Justice Policy Institute. Gov. Martin O’Malley green-lighted the project last year, despite strong objections and protests from the community.
The juvenile detention center is set to open in roughly three years, with construction beginning as early as 2013. The center was originally supposed to cost $104 million and house up to 230 minors, but Gov. O’Malley reduced the number to 120 beds after a report done by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) was released, saying the proposed jail was larger than necessary and would more than likely never accommodate more than 117 youth.
That same report by the NCCD, the Bed Space Forecast for Baltimore Youth Detention Facility, showed that juvenile crime in Baltimore is predicted to continue on the path of decline begun in 2003. The report offered five recommendations that included shortening the stay of youth who will be eventually released on bail, and placing non-violent offenders on house arrest or electric monitoring.
Opponents of the detention center say the money should be spent preventing more youth from entering the system with money reallocated for parks and recreation and youth jobs. Those against the new facility also believe funds should be set aside to put non-violent offenders in special rehabilitation programs, which in turn would free space for more violent juvenile criminals to be put in juvenile detention- separate from adults.
This is not currently the case. Proponents for the building say the new space will give children that have committed heinous adult crimes the specifically tailored programming and structure needed to rehabilitate and educate youth.
The Baltimore City Department of Corrections, which deals with adult criminals, is currently neither mandated nor prepared to provide the care and extra safety measures needed for accused adolescents in adult general populations.
“Imagine being 15 years old and you are in a prison setting with adults,” said the Rev. Kinji Scott, whose 15-year-old son was charged as an adult nine months ago.
“Every child has the ability to be rehabilitated, but they cannot be rehabilitated with adults.” Rev. Scott now visits his son at least twice a week at the downtown Baltimore detention center where he is being held. Parents in situations similar to that of Rev. Scott have children who spend all day with “hardened criminals” who enjoy indoctrinating young, malleable minds. Though Rev.
Scott is very active in the community and is a mentor himself to young men, he says that a newer and safer facility is needed because “no matter how many preventative measures you take you are still going to have young people who commit crimes.”
Those in opposition to the new facility say there are plenty of detention centers and buildings in the city that could be used to house the relatively few children being held with adults.
“We bare some of the responsibility too for not providing the kinds of alternatives we should be providing. The money could be and should be used to help lift up lives, not to simply incarcerate people,” said Sen. Muse.
Though African American youth make up 76 percent of the population in the Baltimore, studies from the Advocates for Children and Youth show Black children make up 94 percent of adolescents in detention centers.
Baltimore City will be forced to close recreation centers, consolidate others and contract out even more to private companies in the next year. Schools across the city are lacking the funds to operate at their maximum potential, and after-school programs and engaging initiatives for student improvement are being starved bone thin.
“All youth are born to succeed and with opportunity we can do that- but no one can succeed without opportunity,” said Antonio Ellis, a sophomore at Reginald F. Lewis High School.
“Where I live there are no recreation centers, there are no jobs for youth and no opportunities.”