For more than 20 years, critics including state legislators, concerned citizens and child advocates have called for the closure of Oak Hill, the District of Columbia's beleaguered juvenile detention center in Laurel.
Now, in what some are calling a last-ditch attempt to keep the 208-bed facility afloat, the District has agreed to the appointment of an independent arbiter with power over the fate of Oak Hill as part of a plan to overhaul its juvenile justice system.
If arbiter Grace M. Lopes agrees with city officials and the District's Youth Services Administration, authorities will demolish the dilapidated facility and build a new one.
But if she agrees with concerned citizens or the attorneys involved in a court battle over Oak Hill, the juvenile detention center could be shut down and its operations moved to the District.
Those who have long pleaded with the District to relieve the state of the crowded, violence-prone facility say only one option will satisfy them.
"The district needs to pack up and move their facility south," said Ray Smallwood, head of the Maryland Volunteer Fire Department and president of the Civic Association of Maryland City, a neighborhood close to Oak Hill.
"They have overstayed their welcome."
As for the YSA's plans for a new facility, Smallwood said: "That is absolutely not acceptable. They can't even take care of the one they have."
Oak Hill, on 888 bucolic acres between the National Security Agency, Fort Meade and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is a maximum-security detention center for offenders ages 14 to 21. Most of them have been convicted of drug charges or unauthorized use of a vehicle. A few were convicted of sexual assault or murder.
Built in 1967, Oak Hill's suburban location came out of a 1929 land grant from the federal government to the District.
Transfer of the land to Maryland would require federal legislation.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat whose district includes Oak Hill, has been leading the charge to close the center and turn over some of the land to the NSA for an energy co-generation facility.
"If I had my choice, I'd like for them to close and relocate somewhere in the District, but that's easier for me to say than for D.C. to do," Cardin said. "In the meantime, I'm hoping that some of the land can be released for other purposes consistent with community."
As for the YSA's plans to rebuild Oak Hill, Cardin said, "It would be news to me if they have the money to do so." He added: "We don't have a lot of confidence with what [District officials and the arbiter] are going to do with Oak Hill."
In a report issued this month, the YSA detailed its plan for Oak Hill, which includes a new facility by 2006.
According to Mark Back, an interim special counsel appointed by Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams to stabilize the YSA and Oak Hill, there is room in the agency's budget for the construction of a facility at a cost of about $11 million.
The YSA is constructing a facility off Mount Olivet Road Northeast in the District to house 80 of Oak Hill's youths.
The remainder of those committed, he said, will remain in Laurel.
Back is skeptical about calls for the YSA to move the facility closer to the District.
"Tell me where." he said. "It would take us several years to find suitable property in the District."
As arbiter, Lopes reports to the D.C. Superior Court and will have authority over all decisions relating to the facility. If the reforms do not succeed, the YSA will be turned over to a court-appointed receiver.
Lopes, who is unable to comment publicly on plans for Oak Hill, has been praised by all parties involved in the matter for her skill as former counsel to Williams and her extensive background in juvenile justice.
"She is a person of integrity and experience," said Marc Schindler, a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in Washington, which has spent a decade pushing for the closure of Oak Hill.
"After so many years with so little progress, we're cautiously hopeful."
The legal battle over Oak Hill dates to 1985, when the D.C. Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the District.
Jerry M. vs. District of Columbia resulted in a 1986 consent decree requiring reform at the District's juvenile justice centers, including Oak Hill. Since then, the District has been found in contempt of the decree several times because of conditions at the facility.
In March, the D.C. Office of the Inspector General issued a detailed report on Oak Hill. Among the problems documented in the report were fire hazards, drug smuggling, crowding, vandalism, inadequate emergency response systems, poor culinary sanitation and lax security measures.
In the past decade, more than a dozen youths have escaped from Oak Hill, raising the ire of residents in the nearby communities of Russet and Maryland City.