Juveniles in Maryland who are charged with crimes as adults are often the victims of violence and receive inadequate education and medical care, according to a report being released today by Human Rights Watch.
The New York-based advocacy group visited adult detention centers in five Maryland jurisdictions--Baltimore City and Prince George's, Montgomery, Frederick and Washington counties--during the last year to study conditions faced by minors. Researchers used Maryland as a case study because it is one of 40 states to adopt laws in recent years that make it easier to try juveniles as adults, according to the authors of the 169-page report.
They found the worst conditions at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center. Violence there is commonplace, the report said. Several juveniles interviewed for the report said that guards sometimes let detainees settle disputes through fights referred to as "square dances."
"Touring the facility, seeing what conditions were like there, was shocking," said Michael Bochenek, the counsel to the organization's Children's Rights Division, who visited the facilities with other researchers.
Teenagers awaiting trial often are held in squalor, the report said, and dimly lighted cells are infested with cockroaches, rodents and other vermin. The cells have inadequate heat in the winter and lack ventilation from the summer heat.
LaMont W. Flanagan, the commissioner for Pretrial Detention and Services at the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the Baltimore City Detention Center, took issue with the report, calling it "unfair" and highly exaggerated.
Flanagan called the guard-sanctioned fights "pure fiction," and he said levels of violence at the jail have dropped 64 percent since last year. "I think the report is based on a lot of self-reporting from inmates that is unproven and unsubstantiated," Flanagan said yesterday.
The four suburban jails that were studied during visits by researchers in July 1998 also had problems. In Prince George's County, according to the report, underage males received no educational instruction. Researchers called the number of hours of classroom instruction offered in Montgomery County insufficient, and they criticized the county for housing some juveniles with the general adult population, instead of in separate wings.
All the jails studied appeared to have some shortcomings in meeting the state minimum for education provided to juveniles, according to the report. Juveniles who were interviewed also spoke of widespread problems with health care and getting enough to eat.
Barry S. Stanton, the director of the Prince George's corrections department, acknowledged that juvenile detainees in the county jail do not receive classroom instruction. "The problem is that most adult jails are not set up to handle juveniles, some of whom are really serious violent offenders," Stanton said, adding that he appointed a task force a year ago to look for a solution. That task force, he said, would make its recommendations later this week.
Arthur M. Wallenstein, the director of Montgomery County's Department of Correction, said he was unaware of any juveniles who are not getting educational instruction in the county jail, though that may have been the case when researchers visited it in 1998. Addressing the concerns about some youths being housed among adults, Wallenstein defended the practice.
"Some youthful folks," he said, "are dangerous."
In a set of recommendations to lawmakers, the group proposes strictly limiting the practice of trying juveniles in the criminal courts, repealing or modifying existing laws that automatically require youths charged with certain offenses to be tried as adults and halting the placement of youths younger than 18 in adult jails.
"The decision to send a child to an adult court is essentially a statement that they've given up on these kids," Bochenek said. "This should only be done in extremely rare cases."
But at least one legislator contacted yesterday did not immediately sympathize with the report's findings.
"The people who are in these facilities are there because they want to be. Because they did not conform to society," said Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil), the chairman of the state Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee. "These facilities aren't meant to be country clubs."