Beyond Jail

This week, Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.), Dr. Iva Carruthers, our colleagues from state and local government and other concerned people from our community participated in a public forum at the University of Baltimore. It was entitled “Beyond Jail: Toward Justice and Opportunity in Baltimore.”

Our primary objective during the “Beyond Jail” forum was to examine and document the alternatives to secure detention for young people who have become caught up in Baltimore’s juvenile justice system, the adult justice system or both.

Our shared priorities were crystal clear.

We were not considering returning dangerous offenders to our streets. Public safety must remain our foremost concern – and the public’s safety requires the detention of those young people who, objectively, are determined to be threats.

However, from the data presented at our forum, we now know that most of the detention that is actually imposed within Baltimore’s juvenile justice system has not been the result of evidence-based, objective assessments of danger.

I helped to convene this public forum, but my main purpose was to learn. I was trying to understand an apparent paradox that we need to address as a community.

The number of young people arrested during the last decade has decreased by 46 percent. That is good news – and an encouraging trend.

Then why, I asked myself, does Maryland continue to struggle with the challenge of responding appropriately to those young people who do become the responsibility of our juvenile justice system?

Part of the answer to my question is now being revealed. At least in some aspects, we have been responding to our young people in ways that are counterproductive.

As a 2012 “Doors to Detention” Study, discussed at our forum, confirmed, most of Baltimore’s juvenile detention placements have been the result of offenses that did not involve violence. Detention has been driven more often by the “policies and practices” of the system, rather than by public safety risks.

Viewing these facts, there are those who could conclude that the disproportionately black population being jailed in Baltimore’s juvenile system–as well as in our nation’s prisons as a whole–is evidence of a “new Jim Crow.” Neither Congressman Scott nor I would seriously argue with that perception.

Nevertheless, acknowledging the inequities in the current system does not automatically determine the best response where the public’s safety is concerned–and that is true both for our society and for the young people involved.

We know that detention of young people for reasons that are not crimes of violence is extraordinarily expensive. We also know, moreover, that there is scant evidence that paying now for excessive juvenile detention deters future crime.

For the sake of public safety, our public treasury and, most important of all, the future of our young people, we must do better.

I am convinced that we can.

To their credit, the O’Malley-Brown administration (and, especially, Maryland’s Juvenile Services Secretary, Sam Abed, and his staff) have demonstrated a willingness to develop alternatives to detention for non-violent juveniles.

Secretary Abed has consistently argued that many of the non-violent young people under DJS jurisdiction could be better served by alternative placements. He notes, as examples, home detention supplemented by GPS monitoring, home visits by DJS staffers, daily and evening reporting requirements, and smaller, community-based treatment programs.

With respect to juveniles charged as adults, we now are witnessing this support for reform taking concrete form.

Last January, Maryland’s public safety officials announced an alternative to the mammoth and expensive juvenile jail plans that the state had previously proposed (the initial proposal that had caused so much public concern).

Rather than a new jail, the state now is envisioning a “regional treatment facility” for those juveniles under the jurisdiction of the adult system. In addition, for young people charged as adults, the state’s alternative plan encompasses the development of a designated 60-cell unit inside the adult system’s current Baltimore City complex.

That unit will be charged with providing those young people with “health, mental health services, treatment programming, education and vocational training infrastructure, and recreational space.”

These are important initial steps–and now we should build upon these reforms.

Now, we should expand the use of alternatives to detention for non-violent young people within the state’s juvenile justice system as well.

We all have a stake in assuring that these alternatives receive the resources that they need to succeed. We can build upon existing state initiatives to shift resources from unnecessary and often counterproductive detention practices toward community-based alternatives that better serve us all.

Maryland can become a national leader in choosing opportunity over disproportionate incarceration where our young people are concerned. We can better protect the public, better serve young people who have lost their way, and save substantial amounts of taxpayer funds in the process.

Whether these benefits will be achieved depends upon widespread public understanding and support.

Now is the time for Baltimore and Maryland to move "Beyond Jail.”

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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