Why We Can't Incarcerate Our Way Out of Crisis

To be a state or local elected official is an extremely difficult task. With the mutual demands of meeting the needs of your constituency while also balancing a constrained budget, the federal government's flexibility in navigating expenditure limits and "debt ceilings" is not part of the municipal toolbox. Therefore, intellectual honesty, political courage and vision are imperative qualities in those who choose to lead in turbulent times. This remains true amid the myriad of issues that we debate; however, nothing is more important than the dual objectives of protecting our citizenry and developing our young people.

Recently the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a highly-respected research organization, released a report about the projected bed need in a new Baltimore jail for youth who are prosecuted as adults. The Council found that the need for beds (117) is much lower than a previous projection (180) and could be reduced to zero, pending policy decisions. Jurisdictions such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia have taken steps to reduce their jail populations and save money without compromising public safety. The city of Baltimore now faces a similar crossroads.

I understand and firmly support the need for criminal justice, and I have the highest respect for those whose job it is to protect society. In addition to having family members and close friends who are members of law enforcement, I spent 10 years as an Army Paratrooper, with much of 2005 and 2006 spent in Afghanistan. After serving the nation overseas, I have come to the conclusion that while kinetic operations are at times necessary, we can never solely "kill or capture" our way to an honorable solution. I also firmly believe that we can never incarcerate our way out of the crisis in which so many of our nation's young people are caught up.

After the release of the Council report, Maryland officials have said that they will reduce the size of the youth jail. That was a good first step. However, the questions have arisen whether there are better ways to spend the more than $70 million dollars that remain for the construction of the youth jail. Now is the time to think both creatively and efficiently about how we allocate resources in the short term, in order to protect our society in the long term.

Currently, the juvenile detention facilities are operating at capacity. However, if Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) increased the use of proven alternatives to traditional detention services, such as shelters for young people who do not pose a public safety threat, then this would free up more detention beds for those youth who are charged as adults. Even PACT centers (or evening reporting centers) showed significant reductions in recidivism as well as a demonstrable reduction in costs in comparison to housing in the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. DJS has a committed staff, and it should train its staff to assess adequately the needs of youth and place them in treatment centers promptly, as this too would open beds for youth charged as adults.

To be clear, some juveniles commit adult-scale crimes, and they have demonstrated the significant threat that they pose and their capacity to do more harm to society. Special considerations must be kept in mind for these case-by-case situations. However, the impact of our generational policy of putting juveniles in adult facilities is undeniable. Juveniles who are incarcerated in adult facilities are more likely to re-offend when they are released than youth who receive treatment and rehabilitative services in the juvenile justice system.

Innovative programs such as the Missouri Division of Youth Services (DYS) have long proven that departing from the large, prison-like correctional institutions in favor of smaller, regionally dispersed facilities is quantifiably and qualitatively more effective. This program has received significant national attention, with the New York Times calling it "the right model for juvenile justice." Replication is difficult, scaling possess inherent challenges, but let us not be guilty of apathy. Considering that the vast majority of juveniles in facilities are there for non-violent offenses, and the intent and purposes of our criminal justice system for juveniles is rehabilitative, we need to be true not only to its intent but to its efficacy.

This example highlights a specific municipality at a crossroads, but these challenges are shared by government leaders nationwide who wrestle with the application of political pragmatism in a financially strapped climate. And our elected officials take nothing more seriously than keeping us safe. We just need to make sure that vigorous debate exists about what that means and how those efforts should be funded. We owe it to ourselves not to acquiesce or force expedient solutions without debate or analysis, but to champion policies that make the most sense.