- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2010

Deputy Sheriff Shane Painter was on his way to an accident when he got a call to divert. A melee had erupted at a home for troubled boys — about 100 students and staff were “actively fighting.”

The deputy radioed dispatchers at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Phoenix, saying the students were “laying everywhere and that some were still fighting with the staff members.” Told to wait for backup, he hit the siren but all he got was a buzzing sound. He turned on his emergency lights. That got their attention.

When backup arrived, the officers discovered that the fight centered on a complaint of an unfair punishment for talking in the shower the night before. It began with one counselor, one kid. Then the kid picked up a brick. More counselors, more kids.

At the heart of the brawl, detailed in memos and interviews among dozens of reports obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act, was a core group of 10 young men. The common thread: They were from Washington, D.C. — wards of the city sent packing to Queen Creek, Ariz., some 2,400 miles from home.

The juveniles — who had been charged with felonies including drug distribution, attempted murder and attempted rape while armed — are among 200 others like them scattered across the country, in large part because the District does not have the appropriate facilities to manage them.

Across the nation, states have been experimenting with more compassionate approaches to juvenile justice, but the lack of effective options in Washington raises questions about the success of its ongoing reforms.

A decade ago, placement of the youths would have been a simple matter. They almost assuredly would have been sent to Oak Hill, the District’s juvenile jail.

Virtually no one disputes that last year’s closing of the jail — a cold, filthy institutional relic of the District's Youth Rehabilitation Service’s troubled history made infamous for reports of abuses and escapes, rampant drug smuggling and harsh and inappropriate punishments — was a good thing.

The D.C. Council had mandated the closing as part of the Omnibus Juvenile Justice Act of 2004 - about the time city officials approved the creation of the Cabinet-level DYRS to replace the city’s Youth Services Administration and implement reforms to a juvenile justice system that was a national disgrace.

Vincent N. Schiraldi was brought in to spearhead the reforms, and under his direction the city aggressively pursued a juvenile justice model to emphasize the rehabilitation of troubled youths in their communities or in more therapeutic surroundings than prison cells.

Or at least it was supposed to.

‘The anti-prison’

The centerpiece of reform efforts is the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a $46 million secure facility opened the day Oak Hill closed for good. Sitting on 30 acres in Laurel, Md., the campus described as “the anti-prison” opened in June 2009 with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty present to christen it as one of the “best rehabilitative facilities in the country.”

It offers high-risk offenders an intensive nine- to 12-month program featuring counseling, education and job training in what is referred to as the “Missouri model,” after successful juvenile justice reforms in that state.

But the state-of-the-art center has space for just 60 of the 900 DYRS wards. Only recently have officials begun to acknowledge that the “anti-prison” is at the root of the problems with their reforms.

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