Young offenders still sent to jail ordered closed WEST COUNTY--CROFTON * ODENTON* FORT MEADE * GAMBRILLS

March 23, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

A little more than two months before Cedar Knoll Youth Detention Center must close, more than 150 juveniles are still housed there, and judges continue to send offenders to the facility in Laurel.

But District of Columbia officials, who run the prison that houses nonviolent offenders from Washington, said yesterday they will meet the June 1 closing date mandated by Congress.

"We're hoping that we can scale down," said Pat Balasco, head of the district's Youth Services Administration, which runs Washington's juvenile detention program. "Unfortunately, judges keep sending us kids."

In 1986, Judge Ricardo Urbina of the District of Columbia Superior Court ordered Cedar Knoll closed and instructed city government to develop an alternate plan that would avoid housing the youths in other, similar large institutions.

But the jail remained open, angering West County residents who complained of repeated escapes. Last year, Rep. Steny Hoyer, a 5th District Democrat, sponsored a bill to cut off funding for Cedar Knoll by June 1.

Between 1990 and 1992, 177 youths either escaped or failed to return from weekend passes. After Mr. Hoyer proposed his legislation last year, Cedar Knoll officials built a $264,000 fence that prevented more escapes from the 22-acre facility.

District officials acknowledged in September that they were lax in developing plans ordered by the judge until Mr. Hoyer's bill passed.

Now, Michael Lewis, the lawyer who has monitored efforts to close the center, says he is worried that the alternative placement plan submitted to Judge Urbina March 2 is inadequate.

"I am very concerned that we will end up on May 30 and the officials will say, 'Gee, Steny says we have to close, so we'll just put the kids someplace.' If by June 1 the population isn't reduced, then they won't get it closed," Mr. Lewis said.

Yesterday, Ms. Balasco said alternate placement plans include housing the teens in group homes in Washington, in out-of-state counseling programs and returning some to their homes.

Youths deemed more violent will be sent to Oak Hill, the district-run maximum-security prison across the street. Some also may go to a small, pre-release center at the now-defunct Forest Haven complex located next to Cedar Knoll.

Other signs that Cedar Knoll will close on June 1 already are showing.

District of Columbia Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly proposed eliminating 90 guard positions at Cedar Knoll as part of her fiscal 1994 budget, and Ms. Balasco said more jobs may be eliminated.

The fence is to be taken down and moved to Oak Hill, where it will bolster other fences that detainees routinely try to cut through, Ms. Balasco said.

Mr. Lewis said he is "cautiously optimistic. They have a plan and they intend to do it," he said. "But I have heard promises from them before."

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