Judge boosts fines in Oak Hill crowding

April 22, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A District of Columbia judge significantly increased yesterday the fines Washington must pay for overcrowding at its youth detention center in Laurel, but he gave city officials more time to reduce the inmate population before they must pay.

Superior Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ordered the city to get the population at the Oak Hill Youth Detention Center below 150 by Aug. 19 or pay $500 a day for each child over that number. The fine would increase to $1,000 per child per day on Oct. 18.

As of April 12, Oak Hill had 202 inmates. If that number doesn't change, it could cost the District $26,000 a day when the August deadline comes.

The existing fine of $1,000 for each day Oak Hill is over capacity has become a "license fee for noncompliance," the judge said in a 33-page ruling. The only way to get the district's attention is to impose "staggering fines," he wrote.

"The court today decides an issue central to the course of the district's ongoing treatment of an entire class of this jurisdiction's less privileged citizens," wrote Judge Urbina, who has overseen a court order signed eight years ago to settle a class-action suit brought by inmates.

"Despite repeated opportunities to repair a very damaged system of juvenile rehabilitation, the defendants have shown at best a lurching progress toward compliance which inexcusably falls far short of meeting the needs of their detained or committed wards," the judge wrote.

"Those are very large fines," said David Reiser, the inmates' lawyer, who asked for the higher fines at a hearing April 12. "It is a compelling incentive to comply."

Jesse P. Goode, the district's lawyer, declined to comment yesterday.

He had argued April 12 that the district might not be able to afford the steep fines, saying that the penalties "would change the face of the district's budget."

Oak Hill, at Route 32 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, holds the district's most violent youthful offenders ages 14 to 21. It has been a source of community concern for years, largely because of escapes.

In imposing the fines, Judge Urbina noted that it took district officials six years to close Cedar Knoll, a minimum-security prison near Oak Hill, after he ordered it shut in 1986. "This suggests . . . that staggering fines may produce the desired result," he said.

The judge noted that the district has accumulated more than $2 million in penalties since May 1989 because of crowding at Oak Hill and the D.C. Receiving Home, a maximum-security prison in Northeast Washington for youths under age 14.

"The fact that the defendants continued to violate the court's orders . . . suggest that the fines established . . . have served as license fees for noncompliance, rather than accomplishing their purpose," he wrote, agreeing with Mr. Reiser that crowding at Oak Hill and the Receiving Home "has produced dangerous and unacceptable conditions."

At Oak Hill, day rooms have been converted into sleeping areas, and, and the small school is overburdened -- 45 teens had no school program the day court-appointed monitors visited earlier this year.

The judge rejected arguments from Mr. Goode, who said the city should not be held accountable for the crowding because judges keep sending youths to the prisons, often with orders forbidding transfers.

Judge Urbina said no proof was offered to bolster that argument, and he chided youth-prison officials for delays in placing inmates in programs that offer alternatives to maximum-security confinement, an issue central to the 1986 court order.

"One of the chronic causes of delay has been the lack of adequate resources to perform educational, psychological and psychiatric testing quickly," the judge said. "The defendants, which includes the D.C. public schools, have the means to speed up this process and to thereby reduce overcrowding."

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