The Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee on Monday voted unanimously to condemn conditions at Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson and the practice of housing juveniles charged as adults at that facility.
Deborah St. Jean, director of the public defender’s Juvenile Protection Division, asked for the “immediate transfer” of detained youth to the Department of Juvenile Services because of the alleged squalid conditions in which they’re kept in the adult facilities.
The Maryland Public Defender’s Office says the Towson jail is “holding children under 18 in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day in rodent-infested, flood-prone cells; by failing to separate them from adult inmates; and by not providing them with adequate schooling or medical care.”
The local central committee is calling for a state and federal investigation of State’s Attorney Scott Schellenberger and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski over the practice of housing youth detainees in the same facility as adults. Both Schellenberger and Olszewski are elected Democrats.
Ian Miller, a member of the Democratic Central Committee, noted on his personal Facebook page that “this is the first time in Maryland history that a local central committee has condemned the policies and practices of an elected Democrat (State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger) and called for a state and federal investigation of an elected County Executive’s administration (Johnny Olszewski).”
The struggles became public in mid-March, when the Maryland Office of the Public Defender published a letter to county leaders alleging that the Baltimore County Detention Center was not complying with federal laws governing juvenile detention.
“[We are] steadfast in our commitment to the protection of the children of Baltimore County and recognize that it is a moral imperative to safeguard our youngest residents from harm,” Baltimore County Democratic Party chairperson Jason Garber wrote in the statement. “We condemn the cruel practice of housing children in adult facilities with full knowledge of these conditions.”
The Department of Corrections is investigating the jail. Walt Pesterfield, director of the corrections department, sent a letter to St. Jean on March 16, which estimated delivering a report on their findings 30 days from the date of the letter.
He generally disputed the accusations, writing, “It appears that in many cases, conditions were not found to be as described in your letter; however, the County has identified areas for improvement.”
Pesterfield said he recognized the “unique challenges and requirements” of minors housed in adult facilities, and attempted to reassure the administration would “closely monitor the status of juvenile detainees,” and “work with our partners to identify and appropriately address areas of concern.”
This closely mirrors language from Olszewski’s office, whose press secretary, Erica Palmisano, gave the following statement to Baltimore Fishbowl regarding the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee’s statement:
“As our administration has consistently said, BCDC houses juvenile offenders charged as adults who are ordered by the Court to be held there. While the County conducts an evaluation of the facility, officials have noted that it appears that in many cases, conditions were not found to be as described; however, the County is identifying areas for improvement and will provide a response following completion of their investigation. Meanwhile, the County continues to explore opportunities to work with partners to identify alternative options for housing juveniles charged as adults.”
In Maryland, when a juvenile is charged as an adult, it is up to the judge presiding over the case whether they are housed in juvenile or adult facilities, though the state’s attorney’s office is permitted to make recommendations.
Shellenberger doubled down on the practice of sending certain juveniles to adult facilities, telling the Sun, “The Baltimore County States Attorney’s Office reviews every case that is subject to a bail review and makes recommendations to assure Baltimore County residents are safe.”
He continued, “If that means a 17-year-old charged with murder stays in an adult facility because they’re charged as an adult, then that’s the appropriate place for them to be housed.”
Reached for comment today, Shellenberger told Fishbowl, “I don’t run the jail. I have no control over what happens there. This matter was brought to my attention in a letter on March 10. Judges send people there.”
He added, “We do ask for and make recommendations in an open court room. The defendant’s lawyer makes whatever recommendation they feel is best.”
Shellenberger said some cases involving juveniles charged with murder, armed robbery, sexual assault, and other crimes may necessitate for those youth to be held in an adult facility.
“These are very adult crimes,” he told Fishbowl. “When you look at these crimes, we think the best thing for the citizens to be housed in the most secure facility possible.”
When asked if he felt a responsibility to advocate for making sure the conditions under which juveniles were held as adults were constitutional, Shellenberger responded, “Remember the Director of Corrections disputes the claims. My main concern is the safety of the public.”
Public Defender Natasha Dartigue insists there’s a better way and backed the veracity of the claims of squalid conditions for the juveniles last Friday. She asked Pesterfield to have the youth who were charged as adults transferred to the Youth Detention Center on Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore City instead of the Towson adult facility.