Closure of Troubled Oak Hill Moves Forward

By Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

D.C. officials say they are moving ahead with plans to close the city's Oak Hill juvenile detention facility in Laurel and build a smaller juvenile center on the site, despite a bill in Congress that would force the District to give up the land.

Under legislation sponsored by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the 800-acre property would be divided among the National Security Agency, the National Park Service and Anne Arundel County. The NSA would give the District funds to build a detention facility at another site, with priority given to a location inside the city.

The District received the property in Laurel under a federal land grant in 1929 and built Oak Hill in 1967. The 220-bed facility, which houses District youths convicted of nonviolent and violent crimes, has been plagued by poor conditions, mismanagement and security problems. In 2004, the D.C. Council passed legislation to close it and build a facility that meets national standards on the site, a project estimated to cost $34 million.

But Cardin said the location is too remote and prevents close interaction between the youths and their families. He also noted that the NSA, on the grounds of nearby Fort Meade, wants to expand its security perimeter and that Fort Meade will gain roughly 5,300 workers as part of the Pentagon's base realignment plan.

"This is not the District's land. This is the federal government's land," said Cardin, who is running for U.S. Senate. "I think the best place for a juvenile detention facility is in the District."

Vincent Schiraldi, the city's director of Youth and Rehabilitation Services, disagrees. The District needs to put its juvenile detention center outside the city so that youths will have space for recreation, he said, adding that most states locate their juvenile facilities in suburban or rural settings for that reason.

The facility where juveniles are held as they await trial is in Northeast Washington. It was moved from the Oak Hill campus in December 2004. It has no outside recreation space, but the average length of stay is only 23 days, Schiraldi said. The juveniles at Oak Hill are serving sentences of several months, and it would be difficult for them to go that long without some kind of physical outlet, Schiraldi said.

He added, however, that the city needs only a small portion of the Laurel property for its new center and that it would be willing to give up much of the land.

"We don't need 800 acres for our facility, and we understand that the county and NSA and others may have an interest in the land -- and we're not opposed to negotiating around their interests," Schiraldi said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she has spoken with Cardin about his bill and thinks an agreement could be reached that would allow the District to build the center on the Laurel property, despite Cardin's public statements calling for the facility to be in the city. Norton has advised city officials to continue with their plans.

"Nobody on either side, including people who are in a position to do something about it, has indicated any reason for the District not to proceed, as it is now, with a smaller facility," Norton said.

The quality of care at Oak Hill has been monitored closely since 1985, when the D.C. Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of juveniles living there.

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