Activists fighting a state plan to build a new $70 million juvenile detention facility in Baltimore received some high-profile backing Thursday night, as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson joined their cause.
"We must revive the war on poverty tonight, not the war on the poor," the prominent civil rights activist and Baptist minister said before a crowd of more than 200 people who gathered in Baltimore's War Memorial Building to rally against the state plan.
Jackson said that with thousands of vacant homes degrading neighborhoods and unemployment leaving families unstable, Gov. Martin O'Malley could better serve the city and its youth by reallocating the jail funding to jobs programs, community initiatives and neighborhood redevelopment.
"Now is the time to fight back, reinvest and rebuild," he said, urging O'Malley to convene a panel of experts to turn 10,000 vacant city buildings into homes and raise the employment rate in downtrodden neighborhoods like Druid Heights, which he visited earlier in the day.
"These children need what children need — employed parents and a place to stay," Jackson said. "Our children cannot be the scapegoat of failed urban policy."
The planned 120-bed facility would hold teens who have been charged as adults; such teens are now held at the Baltimore City Detention Center alongside older inmates charged with felonies.
In July, The Baltimore Sun documented some of the conditions at the facility, including assaults, stifling heat and lax oversight by correctional officers. After The Sun's report, youth detainees were relocated to a building in the complex with air conditioning, a move that officials said had been in the works for months.
O'Malley said last month that the plans for the facility were "moving forward" in an effort to remove the juvenile offenders from the poor conditions at the current facility. Youth advocates have agreed the juveniles in the detention center are not being treated as they should be.
Still, the plans have been panned by a majority of the City Council and a large number of state legislators who represent Baltimore, many of whom attended the event.
They and many activists — including some former juvenile detainees — said Thursday that the situation could be improved at the existing facility without building a new jail and without spending $70 million that could otherwise be used to steer kids away from crime.
"If you build this jail, and you spend all this money on crime control, you're basically saying that's where every kid in Baltimore is going to end up," said Vernon Crowffey, 18, who said he grew up off Harford Road near The Alameda and was first arrested on gun charges at the age of 10.
Crowffey, who said he was in and out of jail starting in the seventh grade, now has a job building greenhouses after receiving training through Project CRAFT, a post-jail program for young offenders, and is a youth organizer with the Safe and Sound Campaign, one of the event's organizers. He told the crowd the state should invest its money instead in programs like those that helped him.
"This money has to be spent in a positive way," he said.
Jackson, who said he recently sat down with O'Malley for 90 minutes to discuss the detention facility and possible alternatives, agreed.
Takirra Winfield, an O'Malley spokeswoman, said the governor was "happy to meet with Rev. Jackson to discuss this issue," and both men "share the same goal to reduce juvenile homicides and make our communities safer."
Winfield said juvenile homicides and shootings have reached historic lows in the last five years, and only 6 percent of juveniles charged under Department of Juvenile Services supervision are detained. Still, the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is under a federal consent decree to improve jail conditions, and has an obligation to do so, she said.
Asked why he chose to come to Baltimore, Jackson said he was invited by local pastors, including Todd Yeary of Douglas Memorial Community Church, and feels passionate about the fight to reshape how urban funding is used.
"If not Baltimore, where?" he asked. "If not now, when?"
Those in the audience also heard from local and state politicians, including City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who spoke passionately.
"I said 'hell no' to the jail and 'hell yes' to opportunity for our youth," Young said.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who had voiced opposition to the facility and had recently been promoting the rally, did not attend. She is facing legal troubles, charged with a probation violation connected to pleading guilty to embezzlement when she was mayor.
"I'm still a supporter," Dixon said. "But I did not want my involvement, my presence to distract from the important issue that we can really rally behind, and that is not having that facility built."
State Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell urged those at the event to push their elected officials to stop the jail from being built, characterizing it as a state-versus-city fight.
"This is another attack on Baltimore City, and we cannot allow them to keep attacking us," she said. "We have to stand together and say, 'No you won't, Maryland.' "
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