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Maryland Senate president joins opposition to youth jail in Waldorf

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. added his voice last week to those who oppose a plan to build a youth jail in Waldorf, saying the project is unnecessarily expensive and does not belong in an urban area.

At a Sept. 10 meeting of the Pinefield Civic Association at the Jaycees center in Waldorf, Miller (D-Calvert) suggested building the jail in Anne Arundel County, one of four counties that comprise the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services’ southern region. Anne Arundel already has prisons. By state law, the region must have its own temporary youth detention facility; it currently does not.

“Folks, I got involved in this very late,” Miller told about 100 residents of Pinefield, a neighborhood near the proposed site. Although the neighborhood lies outside his current district, it would be included in his district for the 2014 Senate term if the state’s redistricting plan survives a referendum challenge in November. Miller said he did not weigh in earlier because the controversy “was not brought to my attention,” he said.

The juvenile services department has several hurdles to clear before proceeding with the Waldorf jail plan, including buying a 19-acre site for the jail, approval from the Maryland Board of Public Works and having the Maryland General Assembly approve the funding, Miller said.

In July, Charles County officials said the area’s sewer system couldn’t handle the jail’s waste — something Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam J. Abed said the department hopes to resolve with the county government.

Abed first proposed building the Southern Regional Children’s Center in the Acton Lane Industrial Park in Waldorf in June 2011, after Nanjemoy residents fiercely opposed building the 48-bed facility in a state forest in western Charles.

But residents of White Oak Village, an adjacent neighborhood, and other northern Waldorf communities, immediately objected. State and local officials also have expressed opposition to a Waldorf site for the facility, which would temporarily detain boys ages 12 to 17 who have been accused of a crime or convicted.

An apparent Sept. 1 deadline to buy the land has passed, but Abed said that his department seems to have complied with contradictory wording in state law by submitting its report in July selecting the Acton Lane site.

Abed said his department hoped to collaborate with neighbors of the site, which, he said, was the best his staff could find after scrutinizing more than 100 sites. Residents should not fear violence or disruption from escapees because inmates would not be able to flee, and fields and stormwater catchment ponds provide a “buffer” between the building and residences and schools, he said.

Youths escaped from the Cheltenham Youth Facility, in neighboring Prince George’s County, in July 2011 and August 2008, according to the department.

“We’re a resource for you and also a resource for the youth of this community,” Abed said at the meeting. “We need to work together and serve as partners for whatever it is that we do.”

But Miller and other state lawmakers said the department’s failure to communicate with other stakeholders stood in the way of a resolution. They complained that they were not informed before department officials announced the selection of the Acton Lane site in July.

“I got a call from the secretary, who said, ‘I want to talk to you about this new facility,’” Miller said. “I said, ‘It would be real nice if you’d talked to me before the press release announcing it.’ So we didn’t have a conversation until afterward.”

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles ) and Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) have denounced the project. Wilson, a former prosecutor, said it was not a stretch to imagine escapees breaking into houses or stealing cars.

“Put it someplace where you have to run and run and run before you find another house,” he said at the meeting. “There are places like that all over Southern Maryland.”

Middleton expressed bewilderment that the department would proceed with a plan opposed by both residents and officials. He said he was skeptical that state officials had seriously examined every site on its list.

Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles) said area youths need such a facility. Residents frightened by reports of violence and escapes from Cheltenham shouldn’t draw parallels, because the new jail would be built as a single secure building, he said.

The Charles County commissioners have signed a letter opposing the facility, although President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) had good things to say about the proposal. She described once living in La Plata, almost in the shadow of the Charles County Detention Center, and never having any problems.


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