By Michael Bochenek and Marc Schindler, Counsels to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch
Published in The Washington Post
October 26, 2003
D.C. officials disclosed recently that their top candidate to run the District's juvenile justice agency is LaMont Flanagan, who headed the Baltimore City Jail for 11 years. That they would consider Flanagan for this job is symptomatic of the city's lack of attention to juvenile justice issues.
Flanagan took charge of Baltimore's jail in 1991 after two decades of litigation had left that city facing fines it could not afford. It would be nice to report that Flanagan cleaned up Baltimore's jail, but when Human Rights Watch and the Youth Law Center investigated the jail in 1999, that was not the case.
Youths held there faced daily threats to their safety. They were confined in poorly lit cells crawling with cockroaches and rodents. Frequent fights, sometimes encouraged by guards, led to lockdowns during which juvenile detainees were restricted to their cells for days or weeks at a time.
Mental health services were minimal to nonexistent. Cells designated for suicide watch lacked important safety elements and contained numerous objects that a detainee could use to hang or injure himself.
Flanagan reacted to the Human Rights Watch report by questioning its accuracy and denouncing it. When the U.S. Department of Justice completed its own investigation nearly three years later, it found that the jail was unsafe, that it provided inadequate medical and mental health care and that it failed to protect youth from harm in violation of their constitutional rights. The jail was directed to implement 107 specific measures to correct the abuses; changes are still being negotiated.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the District's track record is so similar. After a class action lawsuit, numerous court orders and $3 million in fines, the District still is not in compliance with a 17-year-old consent decree requiring it to address problems plaguing the juvenile justice system.
The system's repeated failures have had tragic results, including the deaths of 20 children under the city's supervision since 1998 and the brutal rape of a 12-year-old girl at Oak Hill juvenile detention center.
At a contempt hearing in September, the District again requested more time to come into compliance with the consent decree, demonstrating its lack of urgency toward providing the District's troubled youth with adequate services. Even Mayor Anthony A. Williams has acknowledged the failures of his administration, saying, "There hasn't been an embrace at the agency level of the issue. There hasn't been a sense of urgency."
To address these longstanding problems, the District should do at least three things:
- First, it should comply with the requirements of the consent decree and ensure that youth are safe and receiving appropriate services at Oak Hill.
- Second, it should implement the recommendations made by the mayor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform in 2001. In particular, the District should close Oak Hill and follow the lead of juvenile justice systems in Chicago and Missouri that use a network of small facilities and day programs to provide services that keep young people close to home and on the right path.
Williams also should reaffirm his support of the commission's recommendations, including a commitment to reject misguided policies such as transferring youth to the criminal justice system, as some are suggesting.
- Finally, the District should reopen its search for a candidate to head the Youth Services Administration, with the focus on finding a proven leader with experience in implementing effective and innovative juvenile justice programming.
The District's young people need effective prevention, intervention and development activities to help them grow into responsible adults. Now is the time to see that this happens.