Juvenile Detention Reform in Baltimore in the Year of Freddie Gray

Posted March 7, 2016
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog juvenile detention reform in baltimore 2016

This is the first in a peri­od­ic series of sto­ries about progress in JDAI sites across the nation.

2015 was a dif­fi­cult year for Bal­ti­more. The events sur­round­ing Fred­die Gray’s death were trag­ic, as was the unrest that fol­lowed. But when it came to juve­nile deten­tion reform, Bal­ti­more lead­ers spun a dif­fer­ent and alto­geth­er more hope­ful tale, refus­ing to allow the cri­sis in the streets to derail the progress being made in deal­ing with young peo­ple in trou­ble with the law. 

At the height of the unrest on Mon­day, April 27, the sec­re­tary of Maryland’s Depart­ment of Juve­nile Ser­vices (DJS), Sam Abed, made a com­mand deci­sion to detain vir­tu­al­ly all youth tak­en into cus­tody until morn­ing. But almost imme­di­ate­ly, DJS returned to nor­mal oper­a­tions. The state’s attor­ney declined to press charges against the major­i­ty of youth who had been detained, and most were released on April 28

In the weeks after the cri­sis, DJS staff re-eval­u­at­ed the deci­sion-mak­ing process employed dur­ing the unrest and iden­ti­fied sev­er­al ways the state might avoid the overuse of deten­tion dur­ing any future cri­sis. Since April, Bal­ti­more has seen a steady decline in the use of deten­tion — sus­tain­ing a peri­od of marked progress that began in 2011.

Before 2011, Baltimore’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive (JDAI) efforts had gained lit­tle trac­tion. In fact, from JDAI’s start-up in 2000 through 2010, Baltimore’s aver­age dai­ly pop­u­la­tion in deten­tion (ADP) fell only 15%, which was among the small­est reduc­tions in JDAI sites nationwide. 

The sit­u­a­tion began to turn around in 2011 with new lead­er­ship in DJS and the Bal­ti­more City juve­nile court. That is when DJS invit­ed the Casey Foun­da­tion to work with DJS staff to per­form a brand new sys­tem assess­ment, just as it would do for a new JDAI site. Based on the analy­sis, Baltimore’s JDAI col­lab­o­ra­tive cre­at­ed five work­ing sub­com­mit­tees and began mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant head­way in reduc­ing lengths of stay for youth pend­ing place­ment, while par­ing down the num­ber of those detained through auto­mat­ic holds. After hov­er­ing for sev­er­al years at or around 120 youth, the ADP of juve­nile court youth in deten­tion began declin­ing rapid­ly in the sec­ond half of 2012. In fis­cal year 2013, juve­nile ADP aver­aged 84 youth, and in 2014 the aver­age fell to 62

In 2015, DJS and its part­ners on the Bal­ti­more JDAI col­lab­o­ra­tive con­tin­ued to push for deep­er reforms. A new sys­tem of grad­u­at­ed sanc­tions was ini­ti­at­ed in Maryland’s juve­nile pro­ba­tion sys­tem to reduce the use of deten­tion as pun­ish­ment for tech­ni­cal vio­la­tions, and the state’s risk assess­ment instru­ment was fur­ther tweaked in 2015 fol­low­ing a major over­haul in 2014.

The most recent data on Baltimore’s JDAI progress, which exam­ines all youth resid­ing in Bal­ti­more City (regard­less of where they are detained), shows that these efforts are pay­ing off. Use of deten­tion con­tin­ued to fall through Sep­tem­ber 2015, when an aver­age of 48 Bal­ti­more City youth were in deten­tion each night. Juve­nile arrests have also been falling, sug­gest­ing that the reduced use of deten­tion is not com­pro­mis­ing pub­lic safety. 

Nate Balis, direc­tor of Casey’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group, said Of course, Bal­ti­more is only one exam­ple. Mean­ing­ful advances in juve­nile jus­tice reform are hap­pen­ing across the coun­try, and we look for­ward to shar­ing more sto­ries about progress in JDAI sites in this blog.”

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