BALTIMORE – On the lowest level of the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, below the courtrooms, offices, and judges’ chambers, two Baltimore teenagers sit alone in holding cells, waiting to learn their fate.
Major Jodie McFadden walks through the basement door of the center, greets his staff and inquires about overnight arrests.
“How many kids do we have?” he asks.
“Two,” a woman at the booking desk says.
He nods and turns toward his office, where he hangs up his navy Baltimore City Police jacket. McFadden, a 16-year veteran of the force, is the commanding officer of booking.
Becoming a police officer was not McFadden’s dream while he was growing up in public housing. But here he is, dealing with delinquent youths every day. And this work, he says, is a good fit.
“I thought I could do some good, given my background and the things I had gone through.” For youths arrested in Baltimore, “booking” is the first step in the juvenile court system. Officers walk the juveniles into the booking area where they are searched for weapons and examined to see if they need a doctor. Then they are logged in by name, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a holding cell.
There are no parents here. There are no lawyers. The youths, some as young as 8 or 9, wait here alone.
One boy, no more than 100 pounds, sits in stocking feet waiting to be fingerprinted and photographed. His head is hung low. His eyes do not meet McFadden’s.
McFadden, whose staff abruptly stands at attention and often salutes when he enters the room, runs a tight ship. The youths brought here may see the rooms as grim.
But McFadden has taped the words of Marianne Williamson, the popular author who writes about spirituality, to the door in each cell. A passage from Williamson’s A Return to Love brightens the otherwise cold space with yellow cinderblock walls, a small bench and a toilet.
“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
At booking, McFadden encounters the juveniles for only a moment, but he is determined to have some influence.
“We are all meant to shine, as children do,” reads a sign in one of the holding cells. “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”
On this day, there is a girl staring through the cell window into the hall, talking aloud to get the attention of the staff. The boy being held a few cells away is quietly curled up on the bench, eyes closed.
They are waiting for the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) to decide whether they will be released or detained.
McFadden says they try not to keep youths in holding cells for more than six hours, but the Baltimore City Police does not make the decisions on where these teenagers will go. That authority lies with DJS.
If DJS chooses to detain them until arraignment — the proceeding in which the teenagers are charged and official court dates are set — the youths are assigned to cells in the detention area nearby. Those few who are released — most of them first time offenders brought in on minor charges — must report back to court the next day.
In the room where the juveniles are fingerprinted and photographed, a quote is on the wall, in bold black letters.
“What you live, you learn. What you learn, you become. What you become is a pattern. Patterns create consequences. What will you become?”
McFadden’s own office is filled with inspirational tokens: a sketch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., books on leadership, and motivational quotes.
Married and a father, McFadden empathizes with these youths. Once a Baltimore kid himself, he left the city in the late ’80s and joined the service. When he returned, he found Lexington Terrace — the high-rise public housing community where he grew up — was in worse shape than he remembered, plagued by drugs and crime.
“Home was no longer home,” he said. “A lot of folks didn’t make it.”
Lexington Terrace was demolished in 1996.
McFadden says his biggest challenge is “getting folks to look at the young people that come through here, as kids. They’re going to make mistakes.”
The majority of juveniles who walk these halls have committed only minor offenses. The largest offense category is possession of marijuana.
McFadden says that everyone – himself included – has made poor choices, but he believes everyone can learn from their mistakes.
“What allowed us to navigate through that was some kind of support network” he says.
His staff members encourage the teenagers to think about their situation before they are removed from booking. He says the quotes sometimes get them talking.
“The kids want to be heard,” he said. “Children want to go to adults for guidance.”
But he knows many of these teenagers have weak support systems, if they have any at all. He saw that first hand, living in Lexington Terrace. So he encourages the youths he sees to exceed their own expectations.
A Williamson quote in the holding cells carries the message.
“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”