Cardin's Plan Darkens Outlook for Oak Hill Reforms

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Unit 10A at Oak Hill is still what the rest of the District's juvenile detention center used to look like: In the dark, bare cells, a dinner is spilled on the concrete floor and left to crust over, trash is strewn about and kids sleep next to foul urinals. The place is loud; the furniture, hard and old; the teenagers, bored. The guards cluster behind a plexiglass wall.

Immediately down the hall, walk into the Genesis unit, and it's like stepping from a prison into a college dorm -- a particularly quiet one. This experimental unit behind the tall razor-wire fences on the Oak Hill campus in Anne Arundel County is carpeted and freshly painted, with overstuffed couches and a ping-pong table. The cells have wooden beds with comforters. Clusters of kids and guards -- they're called youth development specialists now -- hang out together, laughing and talking about how each boy is doing on his push to get to the next achievement level.

This is the new face of Oak Hill, but don't bother showing it to U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin. The Maryland Democrat launched a sneak attack on the District last week, anonymously putting a freeze on Senate approval of Mayor Adrian Fenty's takeover of the D.C. school system. By the time Cardin owned up -- and then backed away from his cowardly attempt to use the schools issue to get his way on Oak Hill -- the senator from Baltimore's real motive had become clear: He wants to stick it to Washington's most vulnerable kids so Anne Arundel, an important part of his political base, might grab the Oak Hill site for a park.

Isn't that nice? Never mind that Oak Hill takes up but 25 acres of the 880-acre property in Laurel. Never mind that D.C. authorities were granted control of the federal land in 1923 and have had their detention center there since 1967. Never mind that even though the District has been pumping money into a careful renovation of Oak Hill, Cardin would force the kids out of his state -- he doesn't know where, just get 'em out.

Cardin, who began trying to push the D.C. juvenile offenders out when he was a congressman representing that part of Anne Arundel, is trying to work out a solution in which the detention center would move to Washington, "without a specific site," says his spokesman, Susan Sullam. "The juvenile offenders would be better off closer to their families."

Actually, many of those who end up at Oak Hill would be best off getting a long vacation from their families and neighborhoods. In the confines of Oak Hill, Vincent Schiraldi, director of the District's Youth Rehabilitation Services agency, is busy pushing reforms, aimed at turning angry, violent kids into productive, or at least less destructive, citizens.

Robbers, car thieves and drug dealers used to pass the days scheming about how to act out against the guards and beefing with each other about old neighborhood disputes. Now, in the Genesis unit, the conversation I overhear is about what guys have to do to reach the next level in the new incentive system.

"I gotta do a family tree to move up," one boy says. "And if you smoke, you don't get your level. I get two more levels, and I get a home pass for the weekends."

"It's a total difference," says guard -- um, development specialist -- Harold Brown. "I get to know them better now. We can try to work through their issues. Before, it was just kids coming and going. Over here, we review behavior, schoolwork; we ask them to evaluate themselves."

Schiraldi is upfront about how hard it has been to persuade his staff to go along with reforms that many say are like coddling. "Before," he says, "it was all , 'I count you, I cuff you, I move you, my job is done.' Some people, that's all they want to do. Here, they're supposed to be counselors, and some of them think that's too soft, too easy. There's tremendous resistance from our staff. It's a lot easier to just grab the boys and put them in a cell." About two dozen of 160 correctional officers have quit as Schiraldi has transitioned to the new approach over the past year.

No question, the old system wasn't working. The District's juvenile justice system was the subject of lawsuits, court orders and general condemnation, but it was hardly alone. Nationwide, the Justice Department found that 80 percent of juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes were arrested again within three years.

Reform efforts in Missouri, Chicago and elsewhere have started to make a difference, saving money and reducing recidivism. The new approach seeks to move kids into community programs, some of which are residential. The focus is on job training, art therapy, intensive counseling, student council elections and teddy bears rather than brawls.

At Oak Hill, Schiraldi urges staffers to raise standards and "treat the young people like they're your own." A new building will include automotive, computer, music and other vocational studios. The kids are designing elements of the planned building, and offenders will be involved in every phase of construction.

"When you treat people right, they respond -- not always and not forever, because these kids are going back out on the street," Schiraldi says. "But the old ways didn't work, and now we're trying this."

Schiraldi's next experiment: D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier is planning to give Oak Hill kids puppies to engender empathy and responsibility. Hey, it's worth a try.

But Oak Hill won't even exist if Ben Cardin gets his way. And then the city's roughest kids will know exactly what society thinks of their prospects.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company