- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Southern Maryland lawmakers announced Thursday that plans to build a juvenile detention center in Waldorf officially are off, a decision hailed as a victory for community members who have spoken out against the proposal since it was first suggested in summer 2011.
Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) and Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) issued a news release stating that the Department of Juvenile Services was no longer considering a 19-acre parcel in the Acton Lane Industrial Park as a potential location for the facility.
Opposition from the neighboring Pinefield and White Oak neighborhoods was swift and fierce when DJS Secretary Sam Abed first publicly informed the Charles County commissioners of the planned Waldorf location in July 2011.
Hundreds turned out at public hearings over the next year and a half to decry the proposal, but the department maintained as late as last spring that the Waldorf location was the only one of 120 sites considered in Southern Maryland that met all of its criteria for the 48-bed facility intended for the temporary detention of boys ages 12 to 17.
Middleton said the decision to no longer pursue the Waldorf location was made around the time of a September meeting of the Pinefield Civic Association, during which Miller voiced for the first time that he also was opposed to the Acton Lane site.
“We were informed back in August that the funds to acquire the Acton Lane site were not going to be relapsed to us, so after two-plus years of trying to identify a suitable site … Secretary Abed decided to avoid further delays by abandoning the pursuit,” department spokesman Eric Solomon said.
“I think it’s one of those situations when the community gets engaged and they do their homework and they do their research and they present it in a very well-constructed process and their legislators listen and buy into it. I think it sends a powerful message to citizen groups about how things can be done,” Middleton said.
“I am pleased and gratified that the will of the local community has prevailed and truly appreciated hearing the concerns of all of the members of the community who brought this to my attention,” Miller said in the release.
Solomon said the department still plans to build a juvenile facility to serve its Southern Region — consisting of Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties — in step with state law, and it is currently “evaluating other sites.”
“We don’t want to be the bad guys all the time,” he said. “We want to make sure that we get buy-in from all our stakeholders. But I want to stress that it is important to have these regional juvenile detention facilities because we don’t want to send youth far away.”
Along with Middleton, Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) and Charles County Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D), whose district includes the Acton Lane site, have long opposed putting a juvenile jail in Waldorf.
Wilson, who once threatened “to lay down in front of the bulldozers if I have to,” said he was relieved about a month ago when he first heard the Waldorf location was no longer an option.
“It reminds our citizens that their voice does count,” Wilson said. “It was a great sense of relief to know that these citizens’ voices were finally heard, and I guess also that I didn’t let them down.”
Wilson credited both Miller and Middleton — who chairs the influential Senate Finance Committee — with finally getting the message through to DJS officials that the Waldorf site was unacceptable.
“Once Mike Miller got involved and he heard the constituents, it’s unfortunate Mr. Abed didn’t hear the constituents like Sen. Miller did,” Wilson said.
Collins said he was excited to see the “grassroots” efforts of Waldorf citizens pay off.
“I really think this was a reflection of the citizens of Waldorf, and that’s what makes me feel encouraged, because the citizens were organized and they showed their disapproval from the beginning,” he said. “When I talked to the residents, they were concerned that it was a done deal and that there were a lot of backroom politics and that decisions were being made without the input from the people because obviously there was opposition to that site.”
Independent of the community’s opposition, both Collins and Middleton reiterated that they thought the Acton Lane site was inappropriate given the county’s plans to promote high-density development so that the area can support a future light rail transit line.
“I just thought it would send the absolute worst message to have that site there when we’re trying to promote development in that corridor and one of the first things you see is a detention facility,” Collins said.
A U.S. Army veteran who visits youth at the Cheltenham Youth Facility every other Sunday, Wilson expressed skepticism that a new juvenile facility is the best use of taxpayer funds. He said the children he visits with have access to Xbox games and flat-screen televisions but have little of the “structure or discipline” they need in order to avoid getting in future trouble.
“I believe the juvenile justice system needs a drastic overhaul,” Wilson said, adding that he would like to see the state “bring back boot camps so these men can learn valuable lessons.”