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Does Charging Youth as Adults Make Baltimore Safer?

Monique Dixon and Terry Hickey: There is no evidence supporting a new $100 million youth prison for youth charged as adults

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

For those of you who have followed our Baltimore coverage, you know we’ve been covering the story of the proposed new youth jail—almost $100 million to house youth charged as adults. It’s been a big debate in Baltimore. And a lot of people in the community have been protesting and organizing against it, submitting policy papers as proposed alternatives.

Now joining us to talk about where that’s at, because it seems the prison’s—is moving ahead, at least if the governor has his way. Joining us to talk about this is Terry Hickey. He’s the executive director of Community Law in Action, Inc., a nonprofit organization he founded in 1998. Also joining us is Monique Dixon. She’s the deputy director of OSI-Baltimore, and she’s the director of its criminal and [juvenile] justice program. Thanks for joining us.

MONIQUE DIXON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, OSI-BALTIMORE: Thanks for having us.

JAY: So, Monique, give us, first of all, the basic argument against the prison. I mean, the argument for it, if I understand it correctly, is that to have a safer community, some youth, their crimes are so serious they need to be charged as adults, and a lot of kids are getting charged as adults, and you don’t want those kids in adult prisons. So the state—the governor is saying, well, we need a facility that’s safe for young people charged as adults. And the argument against that prison is what?

DIXON: Is—well, we think that the founders of the juvenile court, which was developed in the late 1800s, got it right when they decided that children are developmentally different from adults, and because they’re different, when they find themselves in trouble with the law, they should be treated differently. And so the juvenile court was developed because based on a child’s age and their inability to fully understand the impact of their conduct, and as well as the fact that young people are more responsive to treatment and rehabilitation than adults, that the juvenile justice system is the most appropriate system for young people, regardless of age, under the age of 18, should be dealt with when they find themselves in trouble.

So we believe that no child should be automatically charged as an adult, as is the case here in Maryland and in states all across the country, that instead, all young people should be treated as young people in the juvenile justice system. And, therefore, when you get to the jail, if there is no need for a new jail, because we believe that the juvenile justice system can accommodate these young people once there is a change in the law, eliminated the automatic prosecution of youth as adults—and even before a change in the law, the courts’ judges can order young people to be held in juvenile facilities even if they’re charged as adults pending trials.

So we just really believe that young people do not belong in the adult system. The adult system is not designed for young people. And, therefore, building a jail specifically for this population is bad policy and a waste of money.

JAY: Terry, why are so many youth being charged as adults? It’s supposed to—one would think it only happens because the crime crosses a certain threshold of extreme violence or something. But if I understand it correctly, it’s being used more often than that.

TERRY HICKEY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY LAW IN ACTION: Well, if you want to track it back, it’s unfortunate. If you look at—there’s things called exclusionary statutes which exist in Maryland. So there’s a list of certain crimes that if a young person commits on paper that crime, keeping in mind there’s lots of elements—a crime can sound like something, but a schoolyard fight could be first degree assault if the proper alleged facts are there.

You can track it back to the ’70s and ’80s. There were some high-profile crimes, including an attack in Central Park in New York City, and juveniles were originally charged with those crimes. And it created a national panic about this super-predator mentality of young people that were going to, you know, blow through our cities committing horrible crimes. And states started being proactive by passing these exclusionary statutes. Unfortunately, after that horse had left the barn, it was a group of drifters that were found, through DNA evidence, to have committed those crimes. So once again, national policy based on a mistake.

But we have this exclusionary statute, which I think a lot of folks misunderstand. These aren’t judges making decisions initially. These aren’t even prosecutors. These are police officers doing their best on the streets, intervening, coming oftentimes after a crime’s been committed, arresting and bringing charges based on eyewitness reports, oftentimes eyewitnesses being, ultimately, perpetrators of the crime itself. So we have young people being arrested and taken directly—it’s like a Monopoly game—taken directly to adult jail. And it sorts itself out.

So public opinion drives this. There are youth, unfortunately, at young ages that occasionally will commit a serious crime. But there’s a lot of misunderstanding, and we deal with this quite a bit. You can be an accessory to something, you can have supposedly attempted to do something, you could be in a conspiracy three levels away, not at the scene, having supposedly done something maybe gang-related. So there’s lot of ways to get you to that charge without that happening, which is why when the Just Kids Partnership, a group I’m affiliated with, did an initial study of the adult jail that exists now. Almost three-quarters of all the youth sent there were originally either freed or sent down to the juvenile system, ultimately.

JAY: And that was—Monique, part of the results of one of the reports is that the actual estimation of how many beds were needed, there actually seemed to be no real crisis of lack of beds.

DIXON: The suggested bed number that the state initially approved was 180 beds. At that time, in 2007, when the plan originated in the state, the jail was averaging about 100 young people on any given day. Since then, since 2006, frankly, the number of youth arrests and the number of young people charged as adults has been declining.

JAY: In fact, arrests across the board have declined, have they not?

DIXON: Yes, that’s correct. And so—and that was one of the complaints we had about the state’s bed projection of 180. We really believe that it was too large of a prison, given the fact that juvenile arrests have gone down and continue to go down. And that’s when our foundation (Open Society Institute) and many of our grantees, including the Community Law in Action and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, began meeting with the Department of Public Safety and the governor, and questioned the size of the jail, and basically asked them to reconsider the size. And the governor agreed to do so with funding from our foundation and the Casey foundation.

JAY: [incompr.] reconsidering, they’re going ahead with the prison.

DIXON: Well, the study that was released, it was conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and it was released in May 2011. And the council found that the bed need would not be more than 117 and would most likely be less than that.

JAY: And just to be clear, that means in any one given day the maximum need would be 117.

DIXON: Yes, that’s at peak.

JAY: And one of the points of one of the reports that presented alternatives about all this is to say you could open up that number of beds in existing juvenile facilities if you didn’t have so many people sitting in these facilities in the first place who hadn’t committed violent crimes.

DIXON: That’s correct. That’s correct.

JAY: And so you make all these arguments, which seem—it seems a no-brainer. Why spend $100 million when you don’t need the beds? But they’re building it anyway.

DIXON: The plan is that so far they’re going ahead with the prison. But we’re hoping that our policymakers will continue to hear us.

JAY: Continue?

DIXON: Well, they’ll listen this time, you know, and not just hear. We’re still going to make the same arguments, with the hope that they will pay attention to the fact that many of our young people do not need another jail. We—and we believe that Baltimore residents believe that there is no need for another jail. We’ve been involved in community meetings that were organized by young people who are involved with the Community Law in Action—many of them themselves were held at the Baltimore City Detention Center at the adult jail that we’re talking about—and got a sense from the residents that they believe that no jail is needed, that our young people need schools, recreational centers, that the juvenile justice system is a more appropriate system.

And mind you, it’s not—the juvenile justice system is not perfect. And so we’re not living in, you know, a cloud, thinking that the juvenile justice system is perfect. We know it is not. But we do believe that it’s best equipped to deal with some of the treatment and rehabilitative needs of young people who are involved in crimes.

JAY: So, Terry, the popular wisdom on all of this is the community’s not safe, put the bad cases away, get them off the streets, end of story. The evidence and the reports that have been furnished to the legislators in Annapolis show, number one, you don’t need this many beds if you need any beds at all. Crime’s actually going down. And the evidence is: more jails doesn’t give you a safer community. So what do the politicians tell you when they see all this?

HICKEY: Well—and that’s where I think—even though, as you said, the jail’s technically still on track, at least for a smaller facility, that’s where I think we’re making inroads, because there is not actually a reliable shred of data out there that shows that putting a juvenile in an adult facility, and ultimately adult prison, does anything for public safety. As a matter of fact, every report that we’ve been able to find shows that youth that go into the adult system come out earlier than other offenders and commit worse, more serious, and more crimes down the road.

People have to start seeing this as a pipeline. And that’s what I think our legislators are beginning to see. Putting youth in adult facilities really is a reflection of the lack of confidence in our juvenile system. The juvenile system was established to handle the most violent juvenile offenders because of the things we’ve already talked about. DJS said themselves, at the same hearings that we testified, their only objection to moving all of these young people into their system is a lack of space and a lack of resources. That’s it. So—and they also separately acknowledge there’s a lot of young people that are in detention facilities that shouldn’t be there, juveniles.

JAY: This jail, this proposed new jail, is a holding facility. Is that right? So once they’re convicted, it’s not like they’re going to be in a separate youth jail. They’re going to be in an adult jail.

HICKEY: Yeah, this isn’t a separate system. It’s a way station on the way to the adult prison system, where they’re going to be in general population with folks that we, you know, picture being in those places. The juvenile system was meant to deal with this. So it’s not a separate system.

The department will tout the services that they’re going to put into this jail. But here’s the thing. They’re not required to. There’s nothing in the law that makes them do it. There’s no long-term funding source for any of the resources there. And they admitted to the state legislature that they have no requirement to track young people. There’s no benchmarks. That’s all in the law in the juvenile code. And so you don’t need a different system. You have one. People have to understand there are places for young people that commit serious crimes: in juvenile facilities. And that’s where we need to put the resources, and that’s where we need to put our attention.

JAY: So what’s going on here? They got—last count, you said, there’s actually 36 kids that would actually be in this facility. When was this? Last week?

HICKEY: Last week.

JAY: Last week. Not 117. It wouldn’t be that hard to clear 36 spaces out of the existing juvenile facilities for kids that hadn’t commit violent crimes. And they want to spend $100 million on this.

DIXON: Exactly. Makes no sense.

JAY: Alright. I’m missing something here.

DIXON: You’re not missing a thing. That’s absolutely right. And it really just makes you scratch your head, because many of the young people, even the 36 who are sitting there now, will ultimately end up in the juvenile system. You know, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency said two-thirds of the young people who are charged as adult are either released on bail while they’re waiting for their trial, their case is dismissed, or they are sent to the juvenile system.

JAY: So the $100 million is going to be spent on a place where two-thirds of the kids actually do wind up back in the juvenile—.

DIXON: Or in the community.

JAY: Or out.

DIXON: Yes.

JAY: So you’re actually talking about one-third, $100 million for one-third of the kids that probably could have wound up in the juvenile system anyway.

DIXON: Yes.

JAY: Alright. Governor, if you’re watching this, please get in touch, ’cause I’m missing something and maybe you can fill it in for me so we can understand why you’re doing this. Thanks for joining us.

DIXON: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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