Plans for a controversial youth jail proposed for East Baltimore has returned to the drawing table after an independent criminal justice research organization reported state prison officials overestimated the bed count.

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) released a 24-page bed space analysis May 12, that said the facility would only need 117 beds over the next 30 years based on current sentencing regulations, far less than the most recent 180 bed count, and substantially lower than the original 230 beds planned for the jail.

The nonprofit credited the decline to Baltimore’s lowering youth population and a reduction in crime and arrests.

The youth jail would house offenders under the age of 18 being tried as adults or are awaiting appropriate sentencing to out-of-home placement. Currently, these youth are detained in a unit of the Baltimore City Detention Center, which in 2006, federal officials deemed unconstitutional because it failed to appropriately separate youth and adults.

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard said the state is considering redrawing the design for the jail in wake of the new projections, although it could delay breaking ground on the detention center.

“Given the reduction in crime and arrests, we determined that earlier population projections for this facility deserved a second look,” Maynard said in a statement.

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley, said the governor is confident in the NCCD’s data. “The governor said from the beginning that this was to be the definitive reaction to the data to determine the design of the youth jail,” he said.

Along with the estimate, NCCD presented scenarios on how to reduce the bed count even further – by roughly 40 percent – through reforms to the juvenile justice system that include capping the length of time youth remain detained before being transferred to the juvenile justice system or rerouting youth out of the adult justice system all together if they are likely to be released or eventually be tried as juveniles.

One scenario offered a means to avoid construction completely by housing all youth tried as adults in a juvenile detention center as they await their day in court. The process has already been adopted in adjoining Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which along with the state and the Annie E. Casey Foundation hired NCCD to administer the report. “We firmly believe it should be the practice here in Maryland,” she said.

The youth jail’s construction, especially its pricey tab of $100 million, according to original estimates, has led to multiple rallies, petitions and even anti-youth jail websites. Many Black community activists decried the state’s decision to build another detention center that would hole up young Blacks rather than invest in rehabilitation, prevention programs and schools.

In a statement, an alliance of organizations that include churches and activists groups, called on the governor to see the NCCD’s findings as validation that the youth jail is unnecessary. “Baltimore City’s youth awaiting their day in court should not be locked up at the Baltimore City jail for any reason – it does not reduce youth crime,” the alliance said in the statement. “We ask the governor and other state officials to play a leadership role in the national trend to use practices that effectively address youth crime.”

African Americans comprise of 99 percent of Baltimore’s youth jail population, but only 75 percent of the city’s overall youth populace.

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO