- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

D.C. officials have agreed to hire a special arbiter to oversee reform of the city’s juvenile detention and rehabilitation programs.

Officials announced details of the memorandum of agreement at a news conference, yesterday and expressed hope the deal would lead to improved conditions at the city’s troubled Oak Hill Youth Detention facility in Laurel.

Disputes over conditions at the facility date back to 1975. An initial case led a D.C. Superior Court judge in 1986 to order a consent decree governing matters including security, transportation, dietary and medical services, education and rehabilitation.

The parties have returned to court repeatedly to argue about conditions at Oak Hill, which houses about 850 juveniles. About 600 have been convicted of offenses, while the rest are awaiting disposition of their cases.

A report released in March by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General found numerous problems at Oak Hill, including marijuana and PCP being smuggled in regularly. Other problems cited include potential fire hazards, and a lack of procedures and staff to handle an escape.

The plaintiffs contend the city has not met the terms of the consent decree, which was designed to take troubled young men and women and return them to the community ready to behave appropriately. They are hoping the new pact will bring the needed improvements.

“We want the kids to benefit from a reformed juvenile justice system,” said Peter J. Nickles, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case. “There are sanctions in this agreement if it doesn’t get done.”

The agreement calls for the District to work with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation to develop a working plan within 90 to 180 days. Once that plan is approved by a judge, arbiter Grace Lopes will oversee compliance with the terms and levy penalties if certain benchmarks are not met.

“It just doesn’t seem right to me that it’s taken this long to correct something like this that needs to be corrected,” said City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, who began working on problems at Youth Services Administration — which runs Oak Hill — when he joined the city government in September.

Officials are not clear how much it will cost to make the necessary improvements, but Mr. Bobb said Mayor Anthony A. Williams is committed to seeking more money from the D.C. Council if it is needed. Mr. Williams eventually wants to close Oak Hill in favor of more modern rehabilitative programs.

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