Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) yesterday proposed making the Youth Services Administration its own Cabinet-level agency, a critical step in a court-ordered plan to reform decades of problems in the city's juvenile justice system.
Beyond a reorganization, city officials said the move would give autonomy and invite reform to a troubled division that has been under court order since 1986. The administration runs the juvenile jail and group homes for youth offenders and supervises runaways; with an annual budget of $61 million, it is the largest division of the city's welfare agency, the Department of Human Services.
"The issues facing youth in the District are so monumental, it really needs to have much more focused attention at the highest levels of District government," said City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, speaking on behalf of the mayor.
Attorneys for juveniles and youth advocates had contended that the current structure had no clear lines of accountability. In a two-page letter to D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) introducing the legislation, the mayor wrote that despite what he described as progress with fixing the system, high turnover within the management ranks has compromised Youth Services' ability to make reforms.
Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) had proposed a similar bill in July that is pending.
The mayor's bill proposes a new agency, the city's 29th, with four divisions: secure programs, court and community programs, support services and performance management. Three additional offices would handle legal issues, internal investigations and monitor compliance. All Youth Services employees would transfer to the new agency.
The agency would be headed by a director who would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the D.C. Council. The language in the bill suggests that city officials want to attract an experienced juvenile justice official to lead the agency. It calls for a director who has managed a juvenile justice program or has a master's degree in criminal justice, social work or a related field. The goal is to create "an aggressive District-wide program of reform . . . that can serve as a national model," the legislation states.
For nearly two decades, the city's efforts have been far from exemplary. A class-action lawsuit, Jerry M. v. the District of Columbia, outlined health, safety, education and treatment deficiencies in the city's juvenile justice program. A 1986 consent decree mandated numerous changes, but progress has been incremental at best, according to court monitors in the case.
Grace M. Lopes, former acting general counsel to the mayor, was appointed special arbiter in May to supervise a plan to settle the case. The creation of a separate agency and a director with full fiscal authority are the first two priorities, and the director must be in place by Oct. 15. Bobb said there are several candidates and the city will meet the deadline.
Peter J. Nickles, one of the attorneys representing juveniles in the case, said having the juvenile justice director embedded within the welfare agency made it difficult to attract a top leader.
Amoretta Morris, director of Justice 4 DC Youth! said the legislation was a positive step. "I would hope that it is also a reflection of increased commitment by the mayor to see improvement in this sector," she said.
Precedent exists for creating new agencies. The D.C. Council replaced a commission with the Department of Mental Health in 2001.