Blog of Rights

From Filthy Boys Prison to New Beginnings: Hill Staffers Walk a Mile in Youthful Offenders' Shoes

By Jennifer Bellamy, Washington Legislative Office at 10:47am

Recently, the juvenile justice community organized a site visit to the Oak Hill Youth Center and the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, Maryland, for key congressional staffers and staff in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), including Melodee Hanes, the office's acting Deputy Administrator.

The tour began at the now-closed Oak Hill Youth Center in order to highlight the District of Columbia's previous approach to juvenile justice that relied on punitive measures and secure confinement as a response to juvenile crime. The group then toured the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, D.C.'s new juvenile correctional facility modeled after Missouri's approach to juvenile justice. The Missouri model has given juvenile detention a face-lift, housing residents in dormitory-like settings and creating a culture focused on rehabilitation as well as accountability.

As former public defender and current Georgetown Law School professor James Foreman Jr. noted, "For over two decades, the District's juvenile justice system was a source of shame. Rats and roaches infested Oak Hill, and a court-appointed monitor found snakes in hallways and in residents' beds. Youths assaulted staff, and staff assaulted youths. Drugs, alcohol and weapons were easy to find. Escapes were common."

In 1985 the Public Defender Services and ACLU sued Oak Hill for its poor services to youth in a case known as Jerry M. v. District of Columbia. Despitethe horrifying conditions of the Oak Hill facility and the vulnerability of its residents, more than a decade passed before the battle in the courts was won. Finally, in May 2009, Oak Hill was replaced with New Beginnings, whose name signaled a new chapter in the troubled history of juvenile justice.

Under the Missouri Model which inspired New Beginnings, officials realized that rehabilitation is one of the best means of protecting the public. The new approach does not abandon personal accountability, but instead adds to the meaning by ensuring that youth take responsibility for their offenses as well as their futures, by emphasizing the need to develop skills and make positive choices. As Professor Foreman states, "By teaching juvenile offenders to address their past misdeeds, to read and to imagine a future, the Missouri system prepares them to become productive, law-abiding citizens."

This common sense approach is working. Missouri has the lowest juvenile recidivism rate in the country.

Looking at the five rows of razor wire surrounding the perimeter of Oak Hill's campus, the message could not be more clear — what we had before was a training school for kids to become adult inmates. What we have now is a rehabilitative environment where troubled youth can let their guard down and work through the problems that led them to criminal activity.

Kids can and should be held accountable for their actions while being treated with dignity and respect. Teaching youth consequences does not mean that we have to leave compassion behind, and by integrating both we just might be able to raise youth who don't just obey the law and the rights of other people, but who truly respect them as well.

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