Occupy right to question youth jail plan

I

t is encouraging to see Occupy Baltimore take on the governor's plan to spend millions of dollars to build a new jail for youth charged as adults. Although I cannot say that I approve of any civil disobedience that took place during Monday's event, I like the fact that Occupy Baltimore took a stand for our youth.

At the age of 17, I was arrested and charged as an adult and spent 11 months at the Baltimore City Detention Center, an adult jail. I was exposed to violence. I once saw a man beaten and bloodied while correctional officers took me to the school at the jail. I was forced to shower with a woman twice my age, and to squat and cough (strip search) in front of everyone while menstruating. I was neglected and did not receive the psychological and health care services I needed throughout my stay. I was treated as if I had already been convicted of the crime. These experiences at the jail will haunt me for the rest of my life. No child should be treated this way.

My case was ultimately sent to the juvenile justice system, where I spent 11 more months in two different programs, then eventually was sent home. Instead of exposing youths to emotionally disturbing experiences at the Baltimore City Detention Center, they should be held in a juvenile facility with their peers until a judge or jury decides whether they committed the crime.

Now, at the age of 20, with all charges expunged, I am employed and proud to say that I am working with an alliance of more than 30 organizations and individuals to stop the construction of the proposed jail for youth charged as adults. For almost two years, the alliance has opposed Gov.Martin O'Malley's plan to spend $100 million to build a 180-bed jail. It urged the governor to invest in facilities that offer youth opportunities, such as rec centers and schools, not jails. The alliance developed a plan of action and shared it with several of Maryland's decision makers. (The alliance's alternative action plan can be found at http://stopbaltimoreyouthjail.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Alternative_Action_Plan1.pdf.)

At the request of the alliance, the governor asked the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) to re-evaluate the need for the youth jail. After reading the NCCD report, which was released in May, the governor now recommends building a 120-bed facility costing more than $70 million. I am disappointed with this decision. It is a waste of resources, because the NCCD report found that more than 50 percent of youths charged as adults have their cases dismissed or sent to juvenile court. This means that any new jail will sit half empty. The report also said that if the state made some policy changes, there would be no need for a new jail.

By changing policies, youths could be held in juvenile facilities pending trial and be given necessary resources during and after their incarceration. Also, the state should stop the practice of automatically charging youths as adults for many crimes. For the past six years, youth arrests have fallen, and they continue to fall. The number of youths charged as adults and held at the Baltimore City Detention Center each day has fallen from more than 100 to fewer than 80.

It will take about three years to build a new jail. The governor should wait and see what the impact of recommended policy changes would have on the need for beds. In the meantime, state officials should find a temporary facility to house youths charged as adults so that they will not remain at BCDC, where I was held.

In this economic climate, it is important to stop the construction of the youth jail. It costs less to build a school than to build a jail. We need to invest in positive opportunities for children instead of jails. My peers and those younger than me need rec centers, better schools and housing. We need to know that our community believes in us and wants us to be successful in becoming Baltimore's new generation of leaders.

Jabriera Handy is a youth organizer for the Just Kids Partnership to End the Automatic Prosecution of Youth as Adults (www.justkidsmaryland.org).