THERE'S A security scandal at the Youth Services Administration, the arm of the city government that deals with troubled youths who have been detained or committed. As of last Thursday, 60 of the 197 juveniles held at the Oak Hill Youth Center were missing and listed as escapees. Oak Hill is the city's maximum-security youth detention center. Two of those who escaped have been with charged with murder. Others have been charged with violent crimes or have been labeled as chronic offenders. Their ages range from 13 to 18.
How can this be? For one thing, security around the vocational training area has been a joke. Youths were walking off with tools they later used to cut holes in the facility's wire fences. Others have picked the locks on their shackles, escaping as they were transported to court on a bus. The more adventurous scaled the barbed wire fences or stole staff cars. Some of the juveniles went out on home visits and just didn't come back.
Part of this is a staff problem. There have been repeated instances in which there was only one counselor to cover a unit with 20 juveniles, which meant that security came at the price of keeping the youths locked up. Youth Services is hiring 60 more group leaders. Perimeter patrols in cars have also been implemented. Another problem: the lack of suitable punishment. Some of the escapees remain at large for weeks and sometimes months, but counselors complain that there is little or no punishment after the youths have been recaptured. That just encourages others to try to go.
Still, the biggest part of the problem has been incompetence. The decision, announced Monday, to provide Youth Services with the expertise of two corrections specialists is welcome. But perhaps the facility should be run by the city's Corrections Department. Oak Hill youths tend to be those who have been repeatedly detained or committed. That means Oak Hill ought to provide security like a real jail's. In this case, those minding the fence have a lot to learn.