Community Organizing, Fierce Advocacy, Led to Closing of Notorious D.C. Youth Detention Center

Six years ago this spring, the Oak Hill Youth Center was closed. The District of Columbia's juvenile-justice system utilized the Oak Hill facility to warehouse youth in conflict with the law. It was a large, inhumane and abuse prison. Youth re-offending rates were high and hundreds of youth cycled in and out of its doors every year. After decades of litigation, at the urging of community members, the Council of the District of Columbia unanimously approved comprehensive-reform legislation -- the Omnibus Juvenile Justice Amendment Act of 2004 -- to close Oak Hill within five years.

The legislation required that the savings from the closure be redirected to community-based alternatives to incarceration, and that the city create a new, smaller, therapeutic youth facility to house the small number of youth who pose a high risk to public safety and need secure confinement. The new facility, New Beginnings, houses 60 youth.

Community-based organizations -- such as the Alliance of Concerned Men and the Latin American Youth Center -- along with directly affected youth, their families and allies, such as the Youth Law Center and the Justice Policy Institute -- led the effort to close Oak Hill. They formed a coalition, the Justice for D.C. Youth Coalition (JDCY), to engage the community in the advocacy effort. Their goal was to reduce the city's reliance on incarceration and ensure that the vast majority of youth in conflict with the law would be served in the community, rather than in out-of-home placements and prisons like Oak Hill. Through community organizing and fierce advocacy, these groups were able to garner the support of District officials.

The reform effort succeeded in many ways. The District has dramatically reduced its reliance on incarceration and is instead utilizing DC YouthLink -- a network of community-based, non-residential alternatives to incarceration -- for young people in the juvenile-justice system. Oak Hill is closed. It was replaced with New Beginnings, a program focused on rehabilitation. Youth-reoffending rates have gone down substantially. The reform has been so successful that the District's juvenile-justice system is used to showcase how to transform a juvenile-justice system for national, state and local officials.

In launching the Youth First! Initiative, we will be building on many of the strategies and tactics utilized by DC's youth advocates. The Youth First! Initiative is a national advocacy campaign to end incarceration of youth in juvenile prisons and redirect resources toward effective community-based programs for youth, and our goal is to achieve a 50% reduction in youth incarceration in about one third of the states within five years. We will draw on many of the successful strategies that D.C. youth advocates utilized, such as community organizing, policy advocacy and media outreach. Through multi-strategy, state-based advocacy campaigns, such as the campaign to close Oak Hill, Youth First! seeks to achieve a tipping point, at which a new national consensus is developed against youth incarceration and in favor of investments in community programs based on principles of positive youth development.

D.C.'s reforms provide us with a solid road map for how community organizing and advocacy can create the political will to change a city's over-reliance on incarceration and invest in youth in their communities. With more than 60,000 youth in out-of-home placements and youth prisons on any given day in the U.S., we know we have many miles ahead.