Baltimore's top prosecutor refused a request by civil rights groups yesterday to initiate a grand jury investigation into conditions faced by juveniles held at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
The request followed a scathing report, issued yesterday by the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, which concluded that juveniles in Maryland who are charged with crimes as adults are often the victims of violence and receive inadequate education and medical care as they await trial in state detention centers. The report said the problems were most pronounced at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
A spokesman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said that while no action is planned in response to the request, her office may incorporate some of the report's lines of inquiry into its regular jail inspections beginning next year.
"We will read and digest the report and make a decision whether or not it merits further investigation," said Haven Kodeck, a Baltimore deputy state's attorney.
LaMont W. Flanagan, state commissioner for pretrial detention and services, the division that oversees the Baltimore detention center, vigorously disputed the report's findings and the need for an investigation. He cited a grand jury probe of the jail, required annually by state law, conducted five months ago.
That investigation concluded that "the facilities appeared to be clean and generally well maintained," according to court documents. Grand jury investigations last year and in 1997 came to similar conclusions.
However, the probes did not focus on juveniles and largely consisted of one-day tours of jails by non-specialist jurors accompanied by prison officials, the civil rights groups noted.
"The grand jury went on a show tour. I fear their reports are what has allowed these conditions to go on in Baltimore," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Public Justice Center, the nonprofit civil rights and poverty law group that asked for the investigation yesterday.
Witness testimony, extensive interviews with juveniles and independent investigations by experts are required, Smith said. Previous grand jury investigations included none of these.
The 169-page Human Rights Watch report, which started the furor, was based on interviews last year with about 60 juveniles awaiting trial at the Baltimore jail and scores of interviews with juveniles in other county jails.
But Flanagan said the methodology was flawed.
"I think the report was based on unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay from juveniles," he said. "It bordered on fiction."
He challenged the report's conclusion that the living conditions at the jail, where up to 150 juveniles are housed, are "appalling."
"Prison is not a pleasant place," he said. "It doesn't have to be a four-star hotel. It has to be humane, and our jail is clearly humane."
The report proposed to end the cited abuses by strictly limiting the practice of trying juveniles in the adult criminal courts, curtailing laws that require youths be tried as adults for certain crimes and ending the placement of juveniles in adult jails.
The Baltimore City Detention Center is one of the oldest and largest municipal jails in the nation. It holds an average of 3,000 people awaiting trial. About 1,000 juveniles pass through the jail annually.
Staff writer Manuel Perez-Rivas contributed to this report.