Vincent Schiraldi changed how troubled D.C. youth are treated.

Friday, December 4, 2009

VINCENT N. SCHIRALDI, by his own admission, probably stayed too long as director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Not because he didn't enjoy the work and not because he was doing a bad job. Rather, because he is inherently a reformer. With the way the District treats troubled youth having been transformed, it was time for him to make way for someone who can manage the far-reaching changes.

Mr. Schiraldi will resign his D.C. post on Jan. 31 to head New York City's probation department. The announcement caps a tumultuous five years in which Mr. Schiraldi was both hailed and vilified for his emphasis on rehabilitating, rather than confining, juveniles convicted of crimes. D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who showed enormous resolve in backing Mr. Schiraldi, is expected to name an interim director pending a nationwide search for a permanent director.

Dramatic improvements occurred on Mr. Schiraldi's watch: Instead of warehousing juveniles in unspeakable conditions, the District offers unique education and rehabilitation programs in a state-of-the-art facility. While more youths are being committed, the department reports that recidivism is down; so are escapes from the facility as well as homicides of juveniles committed to the department. But there also have been serious missteps -- many of them meticulously chronicled over the past two years by Post op-ed columnist Colbert I. King, despite city law that in many cases shields information that should be public. Naive decisions, with tragic consequences, have undermined confidence in the department's ability to protect the public. There has recently been an alarming increase in juvenile crimes, particularly robberies, with serious overcrowding at the youth detention center.

Mr. Schiraldi, with his emphasis on turning lives around through positive youth development, has put in place a strong foundation. It will be up to his successor to preserve and strengthen reform by coming to grips with some real weaknesses. Juveniles placed in community settings must be better supervised, and judges and other law enforcement officials must be welcomed into the process of making decisions about treatment and release. And the department must be more open about its operations.

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