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Proposed youth jail criticized

ANNAPOLIS — The proposed construction of a $70 million, 120-bed jail in Baltimore to house city youth charged as adults drew strong criticism Wednesday from a state senator who questioned the need for such a large and expensive facility.

Sen. Nathaniel J McFadden, D-Baltimore, said during a legislative hearing on the state-backed proposal that the planned facility would be four times the size of its intended population. The state’s own data show that the number of Baltimore children aged 14 to 17 facing adult criminal charges stands at 42, and has decreased steadily over the past several years, he said.

The Baltimore Democrat said this laudable trend downward would end if the facility is built because the political will to help at-risk youth diminishes when jail cells are available.

“If you build a facility for 120, you’ll fill it,” said McFadden, vice chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation committee. “There is a much better way to go after this problem,” he added, referring to mentoring and other youth initiatives.

McFadden delivered his comments as the committee considers the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ proposal to build the jail in the 600 block of East Monument Street. The department said construction is necessary to comply with a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found youths charged with violent crime were improperly within “sight and sound” of similarly charged adults at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Gary Maynard, the department’s secretary, told the committee that a less-expensive alternative of renovating the Baltimore Pre-Release Unit for Women at 301 N. Calverton Road would not be feasible. The facility’s security infrastructure was built to accommodate non-violent offenders, not the accused murderers, rapists and carjackers who would be among the detainees, he said.

Maynard said the department concluded that a new facility was needed after consulting with the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, which recommended the construction of a 117-bed facility, which was rounded up to 120.

But McFadden remained unconvinced, as he again cited the reduction in violent crimes committed by youths in Baltimore.

“Go to your outside experts and tell them to look at what’s going on in the city,” McFadden said. “We’ll be sitting on a facility without a population to fill it” if the jail is built.

Del. Mary L. Washington, D-Baltimore, also pressed the committee to reject the $70 million proposal and give greater consideration to renovating the pre-release facility, which she said could be accomplished at a cost of between $2 million and $5 million and take 10 months, rather than the two to three years needed to build a new jail.

“We simply do not need a 120-bed facility,” she said.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young also objected to the proposed construction, saying in a written statement that the money could be better used to help at-risk youth so they do not turn to crime.

“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,” Young wrote in a letter to the committee. “Many experts agree that instead of spending millions of dollars constructing an unneeded facility, the taxpayers’ money could be better spent on improved recreation facilities and programs which have been shown to actually reduce juvenile involvement with crime.”

An aide to Young said he was unable to attend the Annapolis session due to a council hearing in Baltimore.

In February, the council registered its opposition to the proposed construction in adopting a resolution that state revenue would be better spent on youth programs than on jails. Specifically, the council called for the money to be spent on recreations centers with full and functioning equipment, rehabilitating the West Side PACT (Pre-Adjudication Coordination and Transition) Center with supplies for trade apprenticeships and renovating the city’s schools.

The Budget and Taxation Committee is not expected to vote on the proposal before the 2013 General Assembly session convenes in January.