Inside unit 9B at Oak Hill Youth Center, the city's juvenile detention facility and jail, the officers assembled 20 young men for a pep talk.

"Let's go! Put your shoes on," a tall, burly officer yelled to a group of sullen 15- to 19-year-olds on a recent morning. Among them were gun-toting cocaine and heroin dealers, marijuana and PCP users, car thieves and vandals. They had spent time inside before -- about three of every four were repeat offenders.

The pep talk began. The officer who moments before had chided the youths to dress quickly spoke in a voice oozing concern.

Sunlight barely penetrated a thick plexiglass window. The officer announced he was glad to be alive and thankful he had a job.

"What is your goal today?" the officer asked. "What is your goal for when you leave here?" His questions were met with silence.

For 18 years, the District has been embroiled in a costly legal and political battle over its treatment of young delinquents. A 1986 consent decree, which came out of the lawsuit Jerry M. v. the District of Columbia, detailed how the city should operate a juvenile facility. But in the years since, the city has paid nearly $3 million in court fines for its dereliction.

As a result, Oak Hill's 11 single-story buildings have come to represent a bricks-and-mortar failure of juvenile justice policy in the District. And after nearly two decades, its future is as uncertain as the lives of the young people in it.

In another and perhaps final attempt at reform, the District and lawyers who represent juveniles agreed in May to work with an arbiter, Grace M. Lopes. Her first report, released last week, noted that overcrowding has been a problem this summer, and it set a Nov. 15 deadline for city officials to submit a plan to fix Oak Hill. If the deadline is not met, Lopes can ask a D.C. Superior Court judge to appoint a receiver to take over the center.

Meanwhile, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has said he wants to close Oak Hill. Members of the D.C. Council and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) also have pushed to close the facility.

For juveniles awaiting trial, the city plans to open an 80-bed detention center in Northeast this fall. But no one has offered an alternative for the roughly 800 juveniles sent to Oak Hill each year.

Crimes Dictate Activities

Young men walked in straight lines, arms behind their backs, one hand grabbing the opposite arm at the wrist. They moved between the 1967-era buildings encircled by a 12-foot high fence topped with loops of razor wire. The city used to operate the minimum-security Cedar Knoll Youth Detention Center on the same grounds in Laurel but closed it in 1993 after years of controversy.

Oak Hill officials recently allowed a reporter to take two separate, supervised tours and also permitted unmonitored interviews with Oak Hill staff members. Juveniles could be interviewed only in the presence of a supervisor and not identified by name.

Their crimes dictate the color of the shirts the juveniles wear, the classes they take at Oak Hill Academy, the on-site school and the cottage in which they sleep and shower.

The young men in purple polo shirts were high-risk offenders. Those in gray were scheduled to go home within 30 days. One officer stood in front of each group of teenagers, all boys, and another guarded the rear.

Girls also are sent to Oak Hill, but they live separately in Unit 6, a razor-wire enclosed building outside the main campus. In a report in March that detailed failings at the facility, the city's interim inspector general, Austin A. Andersen, found that Oak Hill did not adequately keep girls awaiting trial separate from those who are committed to the detention center. Violence had erupted in the past between the different populations.

Before any unit moves from one part of the campus to another, officers coordinate with a control office using walkie-talkies. Three times a day at shift change, all activity on campus stops so that officers can take an official count.

On this day, the guards led their separate groups of young men, about 20 youths total, down the campus walkways. The face of every teenager was black, which is generally the case, according to statistics provided by Oak Hill.

The teenagers come from crime-ravaged and poverty-stricken neighborhoods, including Anacostia, Congress Heights and Benning Road, east of the Anacostia River. They are repeat offenders and the city's most violent young residents, who've exceeded group homes or probation. Many had not been born when the 18-year battle over Oak Hill began.

This year the facility has been cited by a court monitor and the investigative arm of city government for several deficiencies, such as illegal drug activity on campus.

The interim inspector general reported in March that some teenagers who entered Oak Hill drug free subsequently tested positive for illegal substances. The report said that drugs were being smuggled into the detention center and that staff members were the source.

"It's a matter of identifying who these people are and taking appropriate actions against them," said Marceline D. Alexander, interim administrator of the Youth Services Administration, the division of the Department of Human Services that runs Oak Hill. Random strip searches are routine, and searches with drug-sniffing dogs are planned.

Gregory Powers, president of the Department of Human Services's Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents correction officers at Oak Hill, said he would report any officer who did something illegal.

"The vast majority of the people here are hardworking and want to make a difference in people's lives," he said.

Powers has worked at Oak Hill for 19 years and coached the Oak Hill Academy football team to three junior varsity city high school championships. He acknowledged that there are problems but said that many juveniles are well served.

"For every child who has something bad to say about Oak Hill, I know 10 who would tell you good things," Powers said.

The city is legally required by the consent decree to help juveniles turn around their lives. Alexander, the interim administrator, said Oak Hill offers sessions on anger management and on building self-esteem and values. Community and church volunteers also visit juveniles and work with them.

But court monitors, who have written 51 reports in the past 18 years, have criticized Oak Hill for failing to prepare juveniles for life on the outside. A court monitor's report examining Oak Hill's performance during the first half of 2004 will be released this month. With the arbiter taking over the case, that report will be the last from the court monitor.

City Administrator Robert C. Bobb has identified fixing Oak Hill as a top priority for the Williams administration. "We're bound and determined to implement a series of reforms," Bobb said.

But last month there was a setback. City officials, who had courted Leonard Dixon, a nationally known juvenile justice expert in Detroit, could not reach an agreement to bring him to the District to head the Youth Services Administration.

"We have moved on," Bobb said, noting that there are new prospects. "I'm more than certain that we will find another talented professional to lead" the administration.

A Card Trick

Teenage chatter filled the inside of the one-story building where about 40 juveniles ate lunch on a recent day. Like any other school cafeteria, the boys sat shoulder to shoulder with plastic foam trays and dug into turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet peas and biscuits. As they talked and laughed, some split their biscuits by hand and used spoons to slather on grape jelly. No knives here.

At the back of the room, four officers watched the group. They had patted down each youth before he entered the dining facility.

A 19-year-old ate his lunch silently. He wore green, the color of Unit 8A, where everyone is 16 and older, aggressive and has committed violent crimes.

The young man, his hair in short braids, reached down for something under the lunch table. He pulled out and unfolded a small red square, apparently made of paper.

It was a playing card, the 10 of clubs. Visible were two "roaches" -- the ends of spent marijuana cigarettes.

"That's how we get this in here," he bragged, flashing the contents.

A nearby Oak Hill official looked shocked. She glanced around the room, as if searching for another witness, then pulled out her cell phone.

More security officers arrived, and the 19-year-old was quickly taken away. Officers marched the rest of the unit outside to the courtyard, hands again behind their backs. They were sent to their single rooms so correction officers could perform a lockdown and strip search.

They found nothing.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

The District of Columbia has been embroiled in an 18-year legal battle over its treatment of young delinquents at Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel.