After Davon was arrested at the tender age of 16, he was charged with murder. His slinky arms and slender frame fit perfectly in a small holding cell at the juvenile unit in Baltimore City. Nothing would seem amiss about him joining other detained youths except for one thing: Davon was held in a jail that usually houses adults.
Even worse, the day he turned 18, Davon was transferred to the adult unit. He then waited another year for his case to go to trial, only to discover that after 26 months since his initial arrest the state’s attorney decided not to prosecute the case.
Davon’s story is one that was common to the first half of 2009, when nearly 16 out of 135 youths were held at a Baltimore jail, and remained there for more than a year waiting for trial. Additionally, 70 percent of the 135 youths charged as adults in 2009 were either transferred back into the juvenile court system or not prosecuted at all.
His story is a clear symbol for what’s wrong with the criminal justice system when it comes to housing youths in adult jails. And then there’s the grim fact that according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, youth younger than 18 are most at risk of sexual and physical assault in adult jails and prisons. If that doesn’t make your skin crawl….
Here’s a larger issue: The mass incarceration of African-American youths. For Baltimore, African-American youth comprise 76 percent of the youth population but 94 percent of youth held at the Baltimore City Jail for adult charges.
Considering the idea that we are supposed to have a “race neutral” criminal justice system, African-American youths are imprisoned at disproportionate rates compared to their White counterparts. Sure enough, it appears that our justice systems seems to rally around the idea that troubled Black youths are the only ones guilty of drug crimes, murder and other threats to public safety.
The racial disparities that exist at every level of our justice system, reflect those around the country, and should be enough for the state of Maryland to scrap the idea of building a new $104 million jail for youth offenders tried as adults. The facility is presumed to hold as many as 230 teenagers, 14 to 17 years old, who are awaiting trial.
Bottom line: state officials are mistaken in believing that this new facility is needed to comply with an agreement it has with the federal government to separate youths from adults at the Baltimore City Jail. In reality, the only separation that occurs is a disproportionate number of Black youth being separated from the community, which is proven to show a consistent breakdown in family structure and community support.
And while Gov. Martin O’Malley’s intention is to improve public safety, statistically, it does more harm than good. The consequence is that a new jail could lead to increased incarceration and a waste of tax-payer dollars.
Let me explain. State officials anticipate that the number of youths charged as adults will double by 2025. But, an average daily population of youths at the Baltimore City Jail has decreased from 140 in 2006 to 100 in 2010. As of June, there will be around 90 youths there. Ultimately, the proposed new jail will be half empty! That said, state policymakers should consider alternatives, such as releasing youth from the juvenile justice system to community supervision for non-violent offenses and housing other youth who are charged as adults in the juvenile detention center. According to the Justice Policy Institute, pretrial community supervision is shown to have positive outcomes. In Baltimore, for example, only 4 percent of people on pretrial supervision are arrested for a new offense, which is similar to national percentages.
Obviously, the “build it and they will come” mantra sends the wrong message, which is: we care more about locking kids up than funding alternative and preventive programs that really care about their futures.
We owe our kids more—and the solution is not building new facilities. The reality that more than half of the Black youth population in any large American city are controlled, stigmatized, and categorized by the criminal justice system should cause state officials from every jurisdiction to re-examine the use of tax-payer dollars toward alternative and preventive programs, rather than building new prison facilities.
Chris Jack Hill is a scholar and divides his time teaching at Sandy Spring Friends School and the Sojourner Douglass College. To learn more, please log on to criminaljustice.change.org.