Maryland governor Martin O'Malley is known for his attention to data-driven policy and his focus on good government. As longtime partners in his work in juvenile justice, we know the governor will carefully consider the data that led to the decision to build a new jail for youth charged as adults in Baltimore.
And we believe the data lead to one conclusion: The proposed jail should be scrapped.
Conceived at a time when the number of juvenile defendants was rising and state coffers were full, the $104-million jail now makes little sense from a financial, legal, or policy perspective. State legislators and the criminal courts can do much to address the issue without building an expensive new jail.
The first set of numbers to examine is the Maryland budget. The state has a huge shortfall and can ill afford this project at this time. Already, Maryland budget analysts have recommended that the Department of Public Safety and Correction Services close at least one prison to meet current staffing resources. Yet, state officials this month began the bidding process to construct the new jail, which will cost $8 million a year to operate.
We understand that state officials are motivated by a U.S. Justice Department memorandum of understanding requiring Maryland to improve the conditions of confinement for youth detained in the city jail, including keeping them separate from adult inmates. We wholeheartedly support those notions.
But building a large new jail is not the only way to comply with the federal government's demands. Virginia, for instance, has passed legislation that keeps its young people in juvenile detention centers, not adult jails, as they await trial. Maryland state legislators should do the same.
Compounding a Policy Flaw
The second data point is this: The number of Baltimore youth transferred to adult court has been declining, a consequence of multiple factors, including the city's and state's considerable efforts to reduce crime. In 2006, the daily population of youth charged as adults in the city jail stood at about 140. As of June 22, there were 90 youths there.
Yet the new facility in Baltimore would hold as many as 230 of these 14- to 17-year-olds. Either the place will sit half- empty — or officials will be tempted to incarcerate more young people, even when a less intensive setting (or release on bail) would be preferable.
The number of youth charged as adults could be even lower if the city's criminal courts processed cases more quickly; soon-to-be-released research supported by the Open Society Institute shows that the average length of pretrial detention for youth at the city adult jail is five months and sometimes stretches to a year. If the average length of stay in these cases was reduced by just one-third, there would only be approximately 60 young people awaiting trial in adult court even if the detention rate in these cases remained constant.
The third point: Nearly three-fourths of youth who went to the Baltimore City jail in the first half of 2009 either ended up back in the juvenile court system or were not prosecuted at all, and only about 5 percent of these cases resulted in sentences to adult prisons. These data points expose the basic problem with the state's current transfer policies: If most of these cases end up back in juvenile court, why are they starting in the adult court to begin with? We shouldn't be compounding this policy flaw by building a $104 million jail based upon it.
A Better Way to Spend $104M
We recognize that these youth are charged with serious crimes, and that public safety concerns propelled them into the adult court. But there is no credible evidence that demonstrates transferring youth into adult court reduces crime or recidivism. There is, however, considerable, disturbing research compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control showing the physical and psychological harm that comes to the youngsters in an adult jail.
Ultimately, the heart of the matter is not just the data. Human lives are affected by the policies at play here. One 16-year-old spent two years in the adult jail only to have the state's attorney drop the prosecution. A mentally disabled 17-year-old spent his four months at the jail in isolation, asking when his mother would come pick him up. The criminal court ultimately sent his case to the juvenile court.
Think what $104 million could do to provide support, services and a better education to Baltimore's children. Our two foundations have invested about half that much in Baltimore in the past decade, working to improve the lives of children and families and to reform the juvenile justice system. We cringe to think such a sum could be squandered on a jail that is unneeded and, from a policy perspective, unwise.
We recognize this facility was conceived in 2005, before Gov. O'Malley was elected, and that $12 million has already been spent planning it. But neither the time nor the money invested in this project justifies construction of a jail that is too large, too expensive and based upon flawed policy. Why not put those plans on hold for several months while government officials and justice system experts determine more precisely the options available for Maryland?
This is the type of data-driven policymaking that we have come to expect from our public officials.
Rather than a financial burden on the state, this project could instead prove the impetus for rethinking Maryland's approach to juvenile justice.