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C. Fraser Smith: How necessary is a new juvenile jail?

Don’t give up on government. Sometimes, more often than you may think, the citizen will be heard. And difficult problems will be solved.

A case in point: Maryland’s proposed new $80 million juvenile jail, a controversial project.

Several Baltimore groups — and a national civil rights leader — may have helped turn the state away from that plan.

During a discussion of issues likely to come before the General Assembly this year, Gov. Martin O’Malley said a declining caseload of young offenders may mean the state can accommodate these offenders by renovating the facility it already has. A new facility may not be needed, he said.

This is what various groups have been saying for several years. The governor has been under pressure from a number of quarters. Late last year, he met with Hathaway Ferebee, head of the Safe & Sound Campaign, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

Image concern

If O’Malley is running for president — he demurred on the subject once again on Wednesday — he would welcome Jackson’s support in Democratic primaries. He would certainly not wish to be seen by black voters as intractable on an issue of growing concern in the black community.

One of the young anti-jail petitioners, Dayvon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, renewed his push Thursday during Marc Steiner’s opening day “summit” discussion with the governor and the General Assembly’s presiding officers. Love said the number of criminal offenders in the U.S. tends to be proportional to the size of groups in society. But blacks and Hispanics are incarcerated at a rate far above their representation in the population, he said.

O’Malley said he was sensitive to the concerns of black Marylanders. They have borne a heavy burden in the nation’s history, he said, from slavery forward. At the same time, young black men have made up the majority of those killed in criminal activity. His measures, he said, have helped to reduce that toll.

In response to Love’s question about the proposed facility, he said a combination of drug treatment and other programs for juveniles has been steadily reducing the number of young offenders sentenced to prison. The new facility may not be needed as a result, he said.

Not on same page

Speaking before the governor arrived at the summit, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said they want the facility built. Its purpose is to separate adult prisoners from juveniles. They seemed unaware of the governor’s changed thinking on the issue.

O’Malley suggested his plan for abandoning the facility might include the need for city help with finding places for other correctional or drug-treatment programs. So far, he said, the state has been unable to find even one neighborhood in the city willing to host a program.

The city, under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, might well want to help with this problem, though “not in my neighborhood” is a difficult hurdle to clear. At stake for the mayor this year is a proposal to secure extra capital — $35 million or so — to help with the borrowing needed to begin a massive, $2 billion overhaul of the city’s decrepit schools. Help with the juvenile jail issue, which is a problem for Rawlings-Blake as well, might be seen as an easy tradeoff.

At the same time, Miller and Busch voiced considerable skepticism about the extraordinary borrowing power. The city faces serious financial issues already. More borrowing might not be the most prudent course.

Miller and Busch — and O’Malley as well — seemed hopeful that this year’s assembly will be a more orderly affair than last year’s.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.