It only took 35 years, but the District of Columbia is now out from under a juvenile justice lawsuit that spanned seven mayoral administrations and generations of lawyers. A Superior Court judge, satisfied that the district is at last treating the kids in its secure juvenile facilities in a sufficiently humane fashion, this week officially closed the oldest active lawsuit the city faced.
Getting to this point cost city taxpayers millions of dollars in fines and legal fees and left untold scars on thousands of kids who over the decades had been warehoused in squalid conditions where they received wholly inadequate services and lived in constant fear of violence.
D.C. was unusual among the many states, counties and cities that have been sued for similar practices in that, instead of settling their cases with promises to do better, it went all the way to trial — and lost.
But now, at least some people in the field of juvenile justice are pointing at the district as a model that other jurisdictions would do well to copy.
The two notorious, rodent-and-roach-infested facilities with country club-sounding names — Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll — that brought the law down on the city have long been closed.
In their place is a secure but less prisonlike complex called New Beginnings Youth Development Center, where the 40 or so youth who live there receive more services in a cleaner, safer environment, lawyers said. Severe overcrowding was one of the many complaints that spurred the lawsuit in 1985.
D.C. is now fully in step with the trend across the country toward making juvenile justice more about rehabilitation than punishment in the wake of scientific research that shows young brains are still pliable and that with proper services, many youth will mature into stable adulthood. The other piece of the national ongoing reforms in juvenile justice involves community-based services aimed at keeping kids out of the system in the first place.
But in 1985, Washington was in the throes of intense fiscal and managerial chaos. In a recent story about the case, The Washington Post wrote: “The atrocious system of youth detention back then seemed to be just another of the District’s myriad hopeless problems.”
For many years, the district made little progress toward fixing the myriad problems at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll. But in 2001, when the city got its act together after years of federal oversight, the logjam broke and the city administration began making real headway, lawyers said.
Elizabeth Alexander, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs since 2001, admitted that the work is not done, even though Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon Jr. has closed the case commonly referred to as the Jerry M. case. Jerry M., one of the first plaintiffs in what became a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of all youth in D.C. juvenile jails, is a middle-aged man now.
“There really have been solid, astounding gains,” Alexander told the Post after the judge gave the settlement a tentative thumbs-up back in February.
Of the current detention system, veteran child welfare litigator Alexander said at the time: “Not everything is wonderful, of course. But overall, it’s been an amazing transformation.”
Clinton Lacey, who has directed the district’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services for five years, told the Post that closing the Jerry M. case marks “a major milestone for the District. We’ve reached the point where we all agree that we are at a high level now, and that’s something we can be proud of.”