CONDITIONS AT Maryland's new juvenile jail in Baltimore are so horrifying that public defenders, clergy members and volunteer groups avoid going there for fear of assault, bodily injury or worse. Fires, filth, suicide attempts, brawls, riots -- any or all of that is in a day's work for the beleaguered, short-handed staff. In a hair-raising report, the state's independent monitor portrayed the place as a disgrace to Maryland. It is also a scandal for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whose campaign two years ago pledged to clean up the mess in the state's juvenile detention system. Instead, it has gotten worse.

The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center opened less than a year ago; it took just 11 months to descend to its current level. Part of the problem predates Mr. Ehrlich. One expert called the design and layout of the facility a case of "architectural malpractice." Hallways are narrow, inviting friction and altercations. Recreation space is paltry, inducing boredom and frustration. Living space is decked on two tiers, providing ample opportunity for serious injury, self-inflicted and otherwise.

But Mr. Ehrlich and his underlings can be blamed for compounding the original sin of the facility's design by failing to anticipate its staffing needs. When it opened last fall, the jail housed 48 youths. By last month, when the independent monitors visited, 106 were being held, but staffing levels were unchanged. Officials plead that the facility's abominable conditions drove staffers to quit; they might just as easily have noticed that the lack of staff promoted abominable conditions. They acknowledged that meager salaries for many staffers make it next to impossible to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of competent personnel.

When it opened last fall, the Baltimore facility was expected to ease overcrowded conditions at two large, antiquated juvenile jails, including Cheltenham in Prince George's County, which Mr. Ehrlich promised to close. The old jails remain open, and to the extent that they are less crowded, the new Baltimore jail is more so. Mr. Ehrlich now proposes to transfer some of the incarcerated youths to other locations. He says that "we are not into excuse-making" -- but complains that Baltimore police are arresting too many teens. Rather than complaining and shuffling the deck, Mr. Ehrlich should champion community-based alternatives to juvenile jails for non-violent youths, such as evening check-in programs, electronic ankle bracelets and other, less restrictive facilities for short-term confinement. That could divert the least dangerous offenders from the Baltimore jail without plunging them into facilities that have succumbed to violence and pandemonium.