One of every 10 juveniles placed in the District of Columbia's detention facilities during the past two years has escaped from the institutions, either by running away or by failing to return from trips or home visits.
Aided by the absence of tight security -- none of the three facilities has armed guards and only one, Oak Hill, has a fence -- these youths in the boldest of ways defy the system, and many go on to commit other crimes, often as serious as murder and armed robbery.
Two Sundays ago, nine juveniles left a cottage at Oak Hill through an open door, pried open the fence with a pair of wire cutters and escaped. It was the largest single break-out since 10 youngsters escaped from the facility in 1968 when it was first opened.
Over the past two years, 876 persons have escaped from the three institutions, Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, both in Laurel, and the receiving home in Northeast Washington. By comparison, 38 adult prisoners escaped from the D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory during the same period of time. The adult prisons have armed guards and most of those escapes occurred when inmates on furloughs did not return to the institutions.
The number of juvenile escapees from District of Columbia facilities also appears to be greater than in the suburbs, but direct comparisons are difficult because most hard-core juvenile offenders in Maryland and Virginia are housed in state facilities and records are not kept in a similar fashion.
City officials said the majority of the District's juvenile escapees are either apprehended or rearrested for other crimes.
Despite the escapes, some judicial officials defend the use of limited security at the facilities as conducive to rehabilitation, but many Washington police officials think otherwise.
"It's frustrating when you lock up some of these kids and they get out again and commit other crimes," said D.C. Police Chief-designate Maurice T. Turner. "There are some kids who can be rehabilitated and don't need to be incarcerated.
"But then there are others who need to be incarcerated and need supervision. What I am concerned about is that small element of the juvenile population that gives a bad taste for the majority."
Gary Winston Jaggers, for instance. He is a 17-year-old who was indicted last month on 49 criminal counts -- including the murders of three elderly residents who lived on Oakwood Street SE and of a fourth who lived nearby. He was a fugitive from Cedar Knoll when he allegedly committed all 49 crimes.
Although Jaggers is an extreme example, other escapees commit burglaries and robberies that continually add to the high crime rate in the nation's capital.
One of every four persons arrested in Washington for major crimes, including murder, burglary, robbery, rape and assault for the year ending last Sept. 30 was a juvenile, according to the latest police figures. Police in other area jurisdictions speak of similar problems with young offenders.
There are no national or local figures available on how much crime is committed by juveniles who have escaped or run away from detention facilities.
However, D.C. police maintain a special five-person squad devoted to the apprehension of juvenile escapees, largely because some of them are such habitual repeat offenders that officials believe are most likely to commit other crimes while out. The most notorious are placed on the police department's Ten Most Wanted List of juvenile escapees, reminiscent of the FBI's list of ten most wanted men, but containing only escapees not suspects.
Jaggers was on that list when he was picked up on murder charges stemming from the robbery of bludgeoning deaths of the four elderly people.
Many of those on the list are 17 years old and under and usually not identified publicly by police, judicial officials and newspapers. There are some 18-year-olds included, however, and among them is Keith Andrian Wiggins, who escaped from Oak Hill on Feb. 11. He was sent there after being convicted of one count of burglary.
He also has been convicted of 18 other counts of burglary, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, larceny from the District government, petit larceny and attempted burglary, according to a flyer on the bulletin board in the police youth division office.
"His prior record reflects that he is a criminal recidivist and is likely to commit more crimes while at large in the community," reads the flyer. "The respondent should be considered a major burglary offender. he also has confessed to numerous other burglaries after plea bargaining with juvenile COURT."
Keith Andre Vaughn, alias "Keith Nelson," alias "Darren Nelson," was also recently on the list. Vaughn failed to return to Cedar Knoll after he was allowed to go home on a visit Jan. 9 the flyer said. He was rearrested a short time ago.
His record of convictions includes arson, two counts of robbery by force and violence, two counts of purse snatching, three counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle, two counts of receiving stolen property and two counts of simple assault.
Audrey Rowe, Commissioner of Social Services at the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), said that treating the juveniles and keeping them in institutions is difficult.
"At the same time we are supposed to be providing a punitive situation, in that they have committed a crime and the courts have ordered them sent here for punishment, we also are trying to get them to recognize what it is they did was wrong, why it was wrong and help them deal with that compulsive behavior . . . We try to get them to control their own emotions and situations."
When many of the juvenile offenders are sent to places like Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, Rowe said, they become depressed and angry.
"Some who come there angry spend two to three months trying to figure out how to get out through the legal process or by escaping.They want a few hours on the outside . . . they want some freedom. They try to get away. They think they can beat the system."
There are no armed guards at the city's three detention facilities, a policy adhered to in most of the country's juvenile detention institutions.
"We don't choose to have armed guards," said Jimmy L. Wright, administrator of the three detention facilities. "We take the position that if we need armed guards with juveniles then the juveniles belong in the [adult] Department of Corrections.
"Besides, why do you need an armed guard? If he [the guard] sees a juvenile fleeing, is he going to shoot? No, that's not the way we handle juveniles."
Judge George H. Goodrich of the D.C. Superior Court's juvenile division said "one of the differences between juvenile and adult justice is an attempt to rehabilitate the youngster before he goes on to become a hardened criminal. It's a hope that you try to convince them that a life of crime is not a desirable thing.
"The people who are running the program are faced often times with the problem of how to motivate the youngster to learn a vocational skill or even to go to school," Goodrich said. "Many of them have gotten into difficulty in the community. They don't want to go to school. There is a problem with stimulating them."
In addition to having unarmed guards, many institutions, like Cedar Knoll, have no enclosed fence. Woods surround the brick cottages at Cedar Knoll, where 140 juveniles are housed on 10 acres of land.
The majority of the escapees and runaways have been housed at Cedar Knoll. " It's usually very easy to take off running and hide in the woods and the hitchhike [into the District]," Wyatt said.
Many of the escapes from Cedar Knoll occur when the youths are outside the cottages, Wyatt said. "The kids are out and about, the staff is there to supervise. If someone decides to chase a ball into the woods and keeps running, that staff member can't go running after him if he is supervising 19 others," he said.
Oak Hill is the city's maximum-security facility, housing 150 juvenile offenders. Most juveniles who have extensive records and are considered very dangerous are housed there.
It has a perimeter fence about 12 feet high, there is an unarmed guard posted at the main gate and another unarmed guard patrols the fence in a car during the day and evening hours.
But that has not deterred the most persistent of those who wanted to get out, such as the nine who escaped May 10.
Three of those escapees have been returned to Oak Hill -- one voluntarily surrendered after his mother told juvenile authorities that he was at her home and two others were picked up by police. The remaining six, who range in age from 15 to 17 and have extensive records for burglary, robbery, assault, rape and larceny, are still at large and have been placed on the 10 most wanted list.
Only boys are housed at Oak Hill. There is no maximum-security facility for female juvenile offenders, most of whom are kept at Cedar Knoll or at various group homes throughout the city.
Some of the females who are housed at Cedar Knoll are repeat escapees -- a problem that Rowe said has prompted her to consider housing some of the young women at Oak Hill.
"When I first said something about doing that, there was a human outcry, 'You can't put girls at Oak Hill,'" she said. "But some of these young ladies need maximum security."
The receiving home, located at 1000 Mount Olivet Rd. NE, houses 30 youths for 24-hour stays before they appear at juvenile court hearings where it will be determined if they will be held at Cedar Knoll or Oak Hill or released pending their trials. Few of the escapes occur at this facility.
So why do these youths continue to flee?
"If I get frustrated, I will run from this joint," said one 17-year-old, who after escaping from Cedar Knoll on four different occasions was placed at Oak Hill.
Rowe said that one escapee once called her on the telephone. "He said he was on the street, but he couldn't say where," she recalled. " It was a youngster that I knew. I talked to him for awhile and told him he really ought to go back. He said he would call again. Then he was gone again." Rowe said she hasn't heard from the youth since then.
A few years ago, Tom Blagburn, who was coordinating the 24-hour assistance program for troubled youths in Northeast Washington, would counsel many a youngster who had escaped from juvenile detention facilities.
"Sometimes we would go to a home three and four days and just sit there and talk to the youth, trying to convince him to go back," said Blagburn. "Eventually, they would go back."
That program was abolished in 1977 because of a lack of funds, he said. As a result, community counseling now is often little more than a sudden visit from the D.C. police.