Ronald was 14 years old when he was arrested for a murder he said he knew nothing about. But before his parents or lawyer could arrive, police managed to muster a confession out of him. Over two years later, he remains in the Baltimore City Detention Center.
“Can they do this?” he wrote in a letter.
Community Law in Action attorney Terry Hickey works with Ronald and other youth at the BCDC. At a June 17 rally in front of City Hall, he described the six-by-nine foot cell youth in the detention center live in, and urged supporters to halt the potential construction of another youth jail.
If the state of Maryland has its way, a $104 million jail will be built in East Baltimore to hold 230 youth charged with adult crimes. Students and youth advocacy groups banned together in protest last Thursday. “If they build it, they’ll fill it,” Hickey warns.
The jail will also hold a school that Hickey was told would be one of the best in Baltimore City. “There’s only one entrance requirement – be charged with something serious,” he said.
Several organizations, including the Public Justice Center, Greater Baltimore Urban League, and Justice Policy Institute, have recommended to Gov. O’Malley that the state should stop charging youth as adults and reduce the population in Baltimore City’s juvenile detention center by using community-based alternatives.
“This is an economic decision that is stupid, inappropriate and unreasonable, said Chris Hill, professor at Sojourner Douglass College. “We should be having a larger discussion on preventative methods and appropriate interventions. We should be feeding money into the preventative programs are looking at the future of our kids.”
According to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, $400 a day per person is spent on housing in the detention facility. Releasing those that do not need to be held due to risk factors would save $28,000 a day, $10.5 million a year.
“We don’t want this new facility,” said Alexis Flanagan of Safe and Sound. “This is no way to spend our tax money. This is no way to respond to the crisis of youth in the city.”
Advocates say and experts agree that holding youth in adult jails does not help public safety; the Center for Disease Control says youth who are prosecuted as adults are more likely to commit crimes than their youth counterparts who are retained in the juvenile justice system. Of these youth, the majority are Black.
In Baltimore City, African-American youth comprise 76 percent of the youth population, but 99 percent of the city’s juvenile detention center population and 94 percent of youth held at the Baltimore City jail for adult charges.
“They’re throwing away the keys and locking kids up,” Hill said. “They’re sending the message that, ‘We care more about locking kids up than about the youth’s future.'”
Chanting, “Books, not bars” and “Educate, don’t incarcerate,” protestors are desperately seeking community support to overturn the state’s decision to build the jail. Grace Bowers joined the crusade after her son was channeled through the “ill-equipped” juvenile system. “It’s our kids that will be locked up in those cages,” she said.