Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin (D) sent a legislative message to District officials this week, proposing to move the New Beginnings youth detention center from Laurel to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus.
Cardin quietly offered an amendment to the defense authorization bill, which sets the Pentagon budget for the next year, requiring the D.C. government to plan for "the complete transfer" of the New Beginnings facility to Walter Reed. The defense bill stalled in the Senate on Thursday afternoon, failing to get the 60 votes necessary to proceed because of a separate fight over the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy. But Cardin still wanted to signal that this issue is a priority for him.
"I don't know if we're going to have a defense bill or not, and I think the likelihood that this amendment will be considered is not very great," Cardin said in a brief interview Thursday. "But I just want people to understand that this is a continued concern that we have to resolve."
New Beginnings opened in May 2009 in Anne Arundel County, on land that for decades has housed social service institutions of the District, among them the Oak Hill Youth Center. New Beginnings replaced Oak Hill, which was notorious for crowding and violence and had become an emblem for all that was wrong with the District's juvenile justice system. Built at a cost of $46 million, New Beginnings was set up to house up to 60 youths, far fewer than had been held at Oak Hill, and it marked a shift toward a more rehabilitative approach toward young offenders.
Soon after New Beginnings opened, two escapes occurred, leading the District to strengthen security at the facility, which is in Laurel, and then earlier this year, a disturbance among some of the youths prompted a massive response by law enforcement agencies from the county, the state and the District. No major incidents have been reported since then, but the facility has been well over capacity in recent weeks, with more youths detained there than at any time since it opened. And that has led to increased tension inside the facility, according to juvenile justice advocates.
Walter Reed, meanwhile, is slated for closure next year, and D.C. officials are working on ambitious plans to develop the 62 acres of the campus that will come under the District's control. The city is considering a mix of residential and retail shops, plus a health clinic and two charter schools. The federal government will also control a portion of the Walter Reed land, and could put federal offices there.
Would all of those new elements mix well with a juvenile detention facility? Cardin made clear that he was tired of hearing from D.C. officials that there was no suitable location available for New Beginnings in the District.
"A juvenile detention center is an important responsibility of local government," Cardin said. "It should be a high priority. It shouldn't be a stepchild, and the district of Columbia should give it the priority it deserves."
But Cardin also said he was "absolutely not" wedded to the idea that Walter Reed was the best or only option for the facility. As for New Beginnings' current location, Cardin said he feels "very strongly that this land needs to be put to better use," calling it important for both environmental and national security reasons (its neighbor is the National Security Agency).
D.C. Council Member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose Human Services Committee oversees the city's juvenile justice system, chuckled when told of Cardin's proposed amendment.
"New Beginnings just got built and it's state of the art," Wells said. "It sounds like politics. It doesn't sound practical. That said, I like Ben Cardin."