DC Reforms Offer Some Kids New Beginning

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New center models holistic, age-appropriate, therapeutic approaches
LAUREL, Md. — A few years ago, facilities manager Carl Matthews rounded a corner inside a residential unit of a secure juvenile center near Washington, D.C., and came across the dangling body of a boy who had, moments earlier, hung himself from the metal pipes that crisscrossed the ceiling of his room.

A sheet was wrapped so tightly around the boy’s throat that Matthews was afraid to cut it with an emergency knife. “I hoisted him up and another guy got his fingers in and we got him down. But that night was what haunted me,” Matthews said. “I just couldn’t fathom being that hopeless at 16.”

The boy survived. His suicide attempt was one more strike against the Oak Hill Youth Center, the secure juvenile facility for the District of Columbia that has been described by at least one advocate as “quite frankly, a hell-hole.” During its lifetime, from 1967 to 2009, Oak Hill developed a reputation as a grim breeding ground for adult prison, a “beat-up and beat-‘em-up” place that lumped together high-risk kids with low-risk ones and functioned as a rite of passage for generations of young black men.

In 2009, the District closed the 208-bed Oak Hill and opened an airy, glass-and-brick 60-bed campus less than a mile away, part of a sweeping set of reforms in the juvenile justice system that the city government began working on nearly a decade ago. In doing so, the District joined a growing list of jurisdictions that are moving away from the harshly punitive systems that became particularly widespread following spikes in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

In the last 15 years, as juvenile crime rates have fallen throughout the country – for reasons that even top analysts cannot definitively identify – so has public pressure to get tough on crime. As a result, jurisdictions like the District are able to adopt more innovative, rehabilitative approaches that keep young offenders closer to their families and offer them community-based services that take into account their age and brain development, said Akiva Liberman, a senior fellow at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

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