- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton together grabbed a gleaming shovel yesterday at a groundbreaking ceremony for a future $33 million Youth Services Center in Northeast.

Nearly 100 people, trying to escape yesterday's blazing sun, crowded under a tent for the groundbreaking on a hillside at 1000 Mt. Olivet Road, across the street from Gallaudet College.

The center, combined with community services, will enable authorities to more thoroughly assess delinquents, who would otherwise be quickly sent to Oak Hill Youth Detention Center at Jessup, Md., they said.

"It will not mix youths detained with youths convicted," said Mr. Williams. "Certainly, separating these kids is a step in the right direction."

Mrs. Norton, the District's nonvoting congressional representative, said family court judges do a good job, but quick convictions have caused them "to send your children off to God knows what."

Oak Hill has been strongly criticized because of frequent escapes and crimes committed by the escapees. The Washington Times reported in January that 22 of 122 inmates had escaped in the previous nine months.

U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat from Prince George's County, vowed in February to force closure of Oak Hill if the escapes continued.

Subsequently, youth-services authorities signed a memorandum of understanding to correct Oak Hill's faults.

"So far, so good," Mr. Hoyer's press secretary, Stacey Farnen, said yesterday. "They have been making upgrades to their security."

The Oak Hill staff has been retrained, and more security measures and surveillance cameras have been installed to prevent escapes, said Gayle L. Turner, administrator of the D.C. Youth Services Administration.

Youths who have been arrested and charged with crimes will be detained at the new youth center, while police and judges evaluate the youths and the crimes, Miss Turner said.

Only if convicted and sentenced would the youths be sent to Oak Hill, she said.

Construction of the new 105,000-square-foot Youth Services Center is expected to be completed by early 2004. The building will contain beds and living facilities for 80 adolescents, a police youth-processing center, a gymnasium and a 5,000-square-foot meeting hall that can be used by surrounding communities.

"It's going to be state of the art. It's going to keep them from ending up criminals," said D. C. Council member Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat.

Deputy Mayor Carolyn N. Graham said officials had visited other cities to look for ways to mix government and communities within facilities. Mr. Williams said the structure will look like a modern office building, not a jail.

In August 2000, Mr. Williams formed a commission to study "ineffective services" in the juvenile-justice system. The commission recommended formation of a youth services coordinating commission to monitor youth services and the juvenile-justice system.

It also recommended that Oak Hill be closed and that a detention center with youth-friendly cottages instead of dormitories be built.

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