D.C.'s juvenile justice chief is heading to New York

Vincent N. Schiraldi, founder of the Justice Policy Institute, took over the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in 2005.
Vincent N. Schiraldi, founder of the Justice Policy Institute, took over the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in 2005. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vincent N. Schiraldi, whose advocacy of less restrictive detention for juvenile offenders was both commended and condemned, is leaving his post as director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to head New York City's probation department.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the appointment Monday. The news drew mixed reaction in the District, where Schiraldi led the juvenile justice agency for almost five years and most recently oversaw the closing of the Oak Hill Youth Center.

Youth advocates praised Schiraldi's nurturing tendencies and the outlets the agency provided, such as acting in a Shakespeare troupe and providing free lawn service for elderly residents. Leaders in the Fraternal Order of Police questioned whether Schiraldi was too lenient.

"D.C. is now safer, and New York is a little less safe," said Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the union. "He was absolutely open about his belief that juvenile offenders and violent juvenile offenders needed to be coddled."

Liz Ryan, president and chief executive of the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, said that lower recidivism rates prove critics wrong. Schiraldi "has brought credibility" to the city's juvenile detention system. "He really turned it around. . . . He brought strong accountability."

Before Schiraldi took over the department in 2005, he was well known as founder and executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has not announced his choice for interim director. Schiraldi, who is from New York City, is expected to begin his new job in February.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Human Services, credited Schiraldi with transforming the troubled agency, calling him a "reformer."

Wells said Schiraldi's work in Washington may be done. "Reformers tend not to focus on management," he said. "The challenge now is bringing in someone to focus on quality management of the reform . . . that Schiraldi brought."

In the spring, Schiraldi managed the closing of Oak Hill, the city's juvenile detention center in Laurel. It had long carried a reputation from a 1989 investigation that found that inmates had been severely beaten.

A half-mile away, the city opened the $46 million New Beginnings Youth Center, which Schiraldi called the "anti-prison."

On May 30, the day after Schiraldi, Fenty and others opened the new facility, an inmate scaled a fence and escaped.

In July, six inmates fled by breaking a window and making their way to an area of the campus not enclosed by a fence.

Last year, a 17-year-old participating in the Shakespeare troupe escaped from custody while at a cookout at Schiraldi's Columbia Heights home, where the efforts of the aspiring thespians were being celebrated.

Schiraldi's supporters, including the mayor, acknowledged the missteps but said they believed in the approach.

Schiraldi was appointed to his post in 2005 by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Fenty's predecessor. Schiraldi was one of the few high-level holdovers from Williams's administration.

"He's created and implemented innovative programs that will serve as national best practice models for years to come," Fenty said in a statement. "Some of the District's most troubled youth have greatly benefited from his work and commitment during my Administration as well as the previous Williams Administration."

Schiraldi said in a statement that he was thankful for "the chance to come home to New York and make a difference in the lives of New Yorkers who have gotten in trouble with the law."

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