The author of a hard-hitting study concluding that juveniles in Maryland charged with adult crimes are subjected to "appalling" physical conditions, extreme violence and abuse, and inadequate education and medical care has excoriated doubting state officials for "circling the wagons" to protect their jobs.
A state official, in turn, says the report is virtually "fiction."
"The testimony of youth are not evidence" to state authorities, declares Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children's Rights Division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. The group's 169-page report, "No Minor Matter," singles out the nearly 200-year-old Baltimore City Detention Center for its cockroaches and rodents, lack of heat, month-long lockdowns, and euphemistically named "square dances" organized by guards who encourage fights among youth to "settle their differences" in a designated squared-off area.
According to the report, approximately 150 juveniles are in detention at the Baltimore jail on any given day, a number that represents one-half to two-thirds of the total number of juveniles detained for adult crimes in the state annually. At Baltimore jail, the vast majority are male, with no more than five to 10 girls in detention at one time.
Bochenek contends that the state's jails are not screening or separating juveniles from adults and frequently put juveniles into violent situations. "They don't take into account they're dealing with adolescents," he says.
The report was based on interviews conducted with 60 juveniles at the Baltimore jail and with scores more at four other facilities from July 1998 through May of this year.
Following the report's release last month, several civil rights groups petitioned Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to launch a grand jury probe into conditions at the Baltimore jail. They were turned down.
A spokesman for Jessamy says that while no legal action is planned, some of the report's "lines of inquiry may be" included in regular jail inspections next year.
On a Baltimore radio talk show in late November, LaMont W. Flanagan, State Commissioner for Pretrial Detention and Services, confronted Bochenek with the charge that his report "borders on fiction." Also that month, Flanagan told The Washington Post that a 1998 grand jury probe of the Baltimore facility concluded "the facilities appeared to be clean and generally well maintained."
But, notes the D.C.-based Public Justice Center, the probe did not focus on juveniles and largely consisted of one-day tours of jails by non-specialist jurors accompanied by prison officials.
"Rather than denying all," says Bochenek, "state officials should use this opportunity to implement recommendations to improve the conditions of pre-trial youth." Among them: limiting the practice of trying juveniles in adult criminal courts, curtailing laws that require youth to be tried as adults for certain crimes, and ending the placement of youth in adult jails.
Contact: (212) 290-4700; www.hrw.org