What Would Make Baltimore Safer?
Monique Dixon and Terry Hickey Part 2: There is no evidence supporting a new $100 million youth prison for youth charged as adults
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And this is a continuing discussion about how to have a safer community in Baltimore.
There’s a big debate going on here about whether or not Baltimore needs a new youth prison for youth charged as adults. About $100 million is planned for that by the state of Maryland. But is that really going to make people safer? And if it isn’t, what will?
Now joining us to discuss all of this is Terry Hickey. Terry is the executive director of Community Law in Action, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1998. And Monique Dixon. She’s deputy director of OSI-Baltimore and director of its criminal and juvenile justice program. Thank you both for joining us.
MONIQUE DIXON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, OSI-BALTIMORE: Thank you.
TERRY HICKEY, EXEC. DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY LAW IN ACTION: Thank you.
JAY: So that’s the question. Ifâ€”people can watch part one of this interview and the rest of our series, and you’ll find most people think that the prison really isn’t going to make the community safer. So if it isn’t, what would?
DIXON: Well, in terms of youth crime, young people need things to do. I mean, at the same time that we’re planning on buildingâ€”that the state is planning on building a new jail, recreational centers will close. Our schools, you know, many of the schools are old. And you can’t learn in an environment that’s not welcoming. So instead ofâ€”we need to invest more in schools, recreational centers. We need to invest more in youth jobs. Young people are out. You know, my grandmother always says a idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Right? So if you don’t have anything to do during the day, young people hang out and of course get involved in mischievous events and acts. But if employment is offered to young people and they are learning skills and how to become productive adults, I really believe you’ll see a difference, a continued decrease in youth crime here in the city.
JAY: I mean, that is part of the issue we touched on in the first part of the interview, which is there actually isn’t this big crime wave going on in Baltimore, and, you know, maybe, you know, you know, The Wire is over, the seasons are done. That isn’tâ€”there isn’t this, but there is a feeling there is. And if you talk to people and if you askâ€”. We did a sort of a little editorial survey on front porches in East Baltimore, and we asked people walking by, what would you like us to do stories about. And, well, number one was boarded-up housing, why are so many houses boarded up. But number two was we’re fed up with the crime.
DIXON: Right. So crime is happening. I mean, I’m not denying that crime is happening in the city. And people who live in neighborhoods where it’s occurring will attest to that. I’m talking about youth crime that will leadâ€”serious youth crime thatâ€”if you look at the statistics, it is going down. And building a jail, however, is not going to reduce crime in the city. It just isn’t. It hasn’t so far. You know. And to have an expectation thatâ€”. You can’t build your way out of a crime situation. You have to do things differently. And providing young people with recreational centers, jobs, and, you know, strong schools, and adults with employment as wellâ€”. You know, we’re in a city that has a high poverty rate. People are not working. We have to provide opportunities for the residents of this city.
JAY: But when you talk to people in the community whoâ€”and I think it should be emphasized this isn’t like some white-black debate in Baltimore. You know, a large number of people in the African-American community either support this prison or at least support cracking down. You know, they want troublemakers off the streets. And so it’s a community debate. And they’re saying that okay, maybe you do need all that stuff, but in the meantime we need to be able to walk to the store without getting robbed.
HICKEY: I’m sorry. There’s an important point at this, though, is that this youth jail, they want to build a bigger, shinier building. One already exists. It’s at the BCDC. There is a youth jail right now that has had no negligible impact, except we see youth crime going down dramatically at that level. And to reiterate, there’sâ€”you know, where there were a hundred-something, there are now 36 youth there. We are seeing things in the juvenile system working. There is a system for this.
But what’s happening is that this is diverting the real discussion. This is taking, you know, the people that live in these communities away from a discussion of holding DJS accountable, away from an idea about where are serious deep-end youth that commit serious crimes. Aren’t they being sent to the right places for treatment? They’re backed up in the pipeline now because we don’t have the resources. Right now there’s been plans for three years to build a youth treatment facility near the city to treat those serious cases. They can’t get that money. But yet we’re talking about spending almost $100 million of taxpayer money to build a building that every single economic and sociological and criminology example says isn’t going to work [crosstalk]
JAY: And maybe for 40 or 50 kids.
JAY: There was a report called the Proposed Alternative Action Plan for Construction of a Youth Jail in Baltimore, and it proposed what to do with this money if it was just made available instead of for the prison. And I take it that it isn’t as simple as that, just because if it doesn’t go to the prison, maybe it won’t go to anything. But if you took that money and applied it, one of the proposals was $30 million for aging public schools and construction program, $15 million for parks and recreation centers, $10 million for community-based youth villages providing wraparound services, $8 million for community-based alternative to detention, renovation of vacant homes that serve homeless youth $7 million, community vocational training centers for $5 million, employment one-stop center for youth $5 million. I mean, it seems a no-brainer that if the object is a safer community, $100 million doing that is going to do more than 40 kids sitting in holding facilities.
HICKEY: Sure. Sure.
JAY: What is the politics of this?
HICKEY: Well, you know, first of all, what I think human nature isâ€”and I did it myself before I got involved in this workâ€”is you tend to picture the most hardened 17-year-old that you imagine sitting in that jail, and then your mind puts them in a rec center, you know, or outside of school and thinks, well, that’s silly, that’s not going to help. The problem is we never got to them at the right time. Those things didn’t exist thatâ€”. I worked with these kids. You know, that 12-year-old becomes that 17-year-old. But they weren’t born that way, and it’s about that lack of opportunity. And we never get to that conversation, or if we do, it seemsâ€”and let’s be honestâ€”it seems like a light and breezy, naive way of looking at these kids. But if you get to know them, that’s just simply not the case. It’s about prioritizing. And that’s what we need to start to do is to prioritize and not get misdirected and not buy into misperceptions about what’s really going to work.
JAY: What is the actual response when you sit down with politicians and say this to them? What do they say to you? I don’t understand how they argue with you.
DIXON: There is a memo of understanding between the department and theâ€”the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Justice. The conditions at the jail are so poor that it attracted the attention of the Department of Justice back in 2000.
DIXON: Federal. And the federal investigators came in and looked at the jail, the youth section as well as the women’s section, and found that, you know, number one, the individuals at the jail were not keeping youth separated from adults, which is required by law, and that the physical plan just was not in the condition that was the best environmentâ€”frankly, a humane environmentâ€”for anyone. And so the federal government entered into an agreement, in order to avoid litigation, that the department should improve conditions and make sure that youth and adults are separated.
JAY: Is some of this money federal money?
DIXON: The money for the new jail?
JAY: For the prison?
DIXON: No. No.
JAY: So it’s not like they’re going to lose some federal money if they don’t build a prison.
DIXON: Right. And the federal government did not require a new facility. They wanted the department to come up with a plan for keeping the young people separate and for improving the conditions. So the governor and the secretary’s response is: we have this agreement with the federal government to improve conditions, and this is the solution. Building a new jail is the solution from their perspective.
JAY: So what’s the answer to that, if they say, we’ve gotâ€”we made the deal, and it’s good for the kids, it’s better for the kids than in that terrible other institution? So why not?
HICKEY: Well, and, see, there we agree. A lot of us that have worked in that facility with kids agree they shouldn’t be there. But like Monique said, the Department of Justice isn’t saying they have to spend an almost $100 millionâ€”build a $100 million facility. They need to do something. They need to find another facility where kids can go. They need to stop charging youth as adults altogether. They need to put youth in juvenile facilities even if they’re awaiting adult trials.
These are all decisions. These are priorities. These are policy decisions that can be made. When NCCD issued their reportâ€”. The department is really hanging on to theâ€”. If you do nothing, you don’t need more than a 117-bed facilityâ€”if you do nothing. And it’s a status quo argument, which government often falls into.
JAY: "Do nothing" meaning there’s no social programs.
HICKEY: Make no change, do nothing, add no programs, do nothing for kids, don’t do anything with the juvenile system.
JAY: You just want to get these kids out of that institution and put them in this one.
HICKEY: Keep going like you’re doing. And we would argue that even from when NCCD did those numbers a year ago, that it’s much lower even now.
HICKEY: But if you look at the rest of the NCCD report and any of the studies that we found out there, there are things you can do. You can simply findâ€”you have to have the political will, but you can find room in juvenile facilities. You can cut down the number of charges in a staggered sense. You can slowly phase out the different charges for charging youth as adults. Some have brokered other suggestions as well. But all of those involve taking it down to almost none at all.
There’s a bill up this year in front of the general assembly that would have all youth go to the juvenile system first, even if they’reâ€”in the facilities, even if they’re awaiting trial in the adult system. That bill’s still being heard. It’s still there. If it passes, that cancels out the need for this facility altogether. So why invest taxpayer money any further in this when we are seeing legislators start to say, you know, I’m okay with that bill, I kind of like it, why are we charging them at all? And we’re seeing a renewed energy around why are we charging them as adults.
JAY: Charging as adults, yeah.
HICKEY: Why are we doing that? And we’re hopeful that, if not this year, next year you’re going to see legislative will behind the idea of not doing it. Then we’re going to have a really big, really useless building sitting in East Baltimore that’s yet another example of how we miscalculated to the detriment of our kids.
JAY: So the bottom line here is if you’reâ€”you know, you can have two objectives: how can we spend $100 million, or how can we have a safer community. I mean, if you’re wedded to the idea of a jail, you have one set of considerations. But if the real issue is community safety, what should people in the community be doing, both about this issue of the prison and about a safer community?
DIXON: Many of the recommendations made in the alliance’s action plan that you mentioned, particularly the reallocation of funding, came from community meetings that many of our grantee organizations organize. And so the need for Youth Villages and youth jobsâ€”all the creative things that came up in that list came from community residents. And what we would say to them is take those lists to, you know, leaders in your community through your city council members and begin working with policymakers to have those things that community members believe they need in their neighborhoods come into their neighborhoods. I think that, you know, there’s a sense of hopelessness that nothing can be done. But I think what we’re seeing is that when communities organize themselves and really make demands of government, then you can see some change. And so we really encourage different neighborhoods around the city to continue to do what they’re doing, and particularly around this jail andâ€”.
JAY: But you haven’t seen too much change on this yet.
DIXON: Well, Iâ€”.
JAY: And there’s been a lot of activity.
DIXON: There hasn’tâ€”. Well, I guess I’m just a hopeless optimist. You know, I reallyâ€”there has beenâ€”the discussions have shifted. Even the way this has been covered in the news is changing. And I think that if we continue to show the illogical way that the state is trying to move, build this jail, that other people will realize it. And, you know, I think it’ll take time. We didn’t get into this situation overnight. And so it will take some time.
JAY: ‘Cause it’s not just about stopping the jail. It’sâ€”the reallocation of the funds is sort of the bigger deal, isn’t it?
DIXON: That’s right. That’s right.
HICKEY: In fact, I see the jail has a critical distraction. I see the jail as something we’ve been fightingâ€”. Remember, this was supposed to break ground in 2010, and capital projects like this break ground generally when they’re supposed to break ground, and there’s no construction money in the budget for this next year, which means it’s another year out, it’s four years before this thing gets built, even if the state gets its way, which I don’t think with the tidal shift we’re seeing in Annapolis it’s going to. People are starting to ask questions about the use of our money. You know, if they don’t buy into the youth piece, they buy into the fiscal responsibility piece: our money is too important to take these kind of chances, either on the money side or the kids’ side. And, you know, I’m a father, I live in the city, I know about how important safety is, but I would ask people not to give up on these kids, because the kids that aren’t involved in these things, which are the vast majority, feel that, and that’s not what they want either. They want to be assets in their neighborhood andâ€”.
JAY: ‘Cause the real issue here is the decay of the public school system, isn’t it? I mean, and I’m not saying we can get into that now, but prison or no prison, you have a decaying public school system, which is going to lead to kids that are going to wind up getting involved in things they get charged for.
HICKEY: Sure, which comes back to us as a community deciding as a priority where we spend our money. And that’s what I hope this fight over the jail is going to eliminate once and for all.
JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us. We’re going to be doing town hall debates about the jail and public policy, and certainly drilling into the whole issue of the public school system, and we’ll be doing a lot more from Baltimore. So thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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