New Beginnings youth detention center faces crowding

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty traveled to Laurel today to official open the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, which replaces the troubled Oak Hill Correctional Facility. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
Marc A. Schindler  is forced out as the head of DYRS and replaced by Robert Hildum, who had been the city's chief juvenile prosecutor.
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 1:33 PM

New Beginnings, the youth detention center at the heart of the District's efforts to reform its juvenile justice system, is overcrowded and in recent months has been housing more young offenders than at any point since the $46 million facility opened in May 2009.

Built to house up to 60 people, New Beginnings has been holding as many as 80 youths in recent days, taxing resources and patience at the detention center and alarming reform advocates who see the facility's focus on rehabilitation slipping away.

With the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services taking a harder line on juveniles who fail to keep in contact with the agency, more youths are ending up at New Beginnings for short stays that critics say are at odds with the mission of the facility.

Once there, juveniles have been finding a place that is increasingly volatile, where the well-regarded school is coping with constant student turnover and where, over the summer, there was a surge in the use of isolation as a way to punish misbehavior.

David Domenici, principal of the school, the Maya Angelou Academy, said the effects of the crowding have been palpable. "We feel increased tension and notice higher levels of violence as the numbers increase," said Domenici, the co-founder of the See Forever Foundation, which operates the Maya Angelou Academy.

Fueling such tension, Domenici said, is an increasing number of short-term detainees for whom New Beginnings is simply a way station. "When significant numbers of kids are out here merely temporarily to be held until they go somewhere else, the school's ability to help them develop the behavior and the academic skills they need is severely impaired," Domenici said.

Tasha Williams, chair of DYRS unit of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents New Beginnings staff, said the increase in population has made the youth more aggressive with each other and with staff."With the overcrowding, they are more violent, they are more prone to assault," Williams said.

A shift in approach?

For the District's juvenile justice agency, which has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit for 25 years , New Beginnings marked what officials hoped would be a major step toward ending the case, now known as Jerry M. v. Fenty.

An airy, modern building in Anne Arundel County, New Beginnings replaced the nearby Oak Hill Youth Center, an aging complex that was notorious for overcrowding and violence.

Envisioned less as a juvenile jail and more as secure site for intensive long-term therapy, New Beginnings was to embody a long-sought shift toward a more rehabilitative approach toward young offenders.

But the shift, which began several years ago under Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and continued under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), has seemed less certain over the past several months. Facing concerns over juvenile crime and criticism of DYRS, city leaders have debated anew how to strike a balance between safety and rehabilitation.

The overcrowding at New Beginnings is one thread in the debate.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company