In D.C., a promise kept in juvenile justice

By Vincent Schiraldi
Sunday, January 31, 2010

As I look back on five years as director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, I see a road marked by both controversy and promises kept.

In May, city leaders fulfilled an oft-repeated vow to shutter the Oak Hill Youth Correctional Facility, one of the nation's most infamous youth-detention institutions. But concerns have since been raised about whether the 60-bed New Beginnings Youth Development Center, Oak Hill's successor, is too small, jeopardizing public safety.

The change in the District, it's important to note, has been part of a broad national shift. In turning away from the prison-like Oak Hill in favor of a smaller facility and rigorous coalitions of community-service providers, the District is squarely in the mainstream of modern juvenile justice practice and research. From 2000 to 2008, the number of youths in custody nationwide dropped by 27 percent, declining in two-thirds of all states. Texas reduced its incarcerated population by more than 2,000 youths, New York by 900 and California by a whopping 8,500, with no untoward effect on public safety. In California, in fact, juvenile arrests fell at twice the rate of adult arrests despite the fact that the state increased its adult prison population by 21 percent and decreased its juvenile prison population by 84 percent.

The District's decline in youth detention, to 54 securely confined, committed youths -- the source of much controversy during my tenure -- pales in comparison. All the attendant hullabaloo smacks of a tempest in a teapot.

In the District, where we have improved conditions, increased the use of community coalitions and reserved the use of locked custody for more serious youthful offenders, what has been the result? Just 7 percent of DYRS-supervised youths are on runaway status today, compared with 26 percent in 2003. Homicides by youths in DYRS's care have fallen, from 1.1 percent of our youth in 2007 and 2008 to 0.7 percent in 2009, and in the past year juvenile homicide arrests citywide have declined at more than twice the rate of adult homicide arrests. Most important, the rate of recidivism for youths released from Oak Hill decreased 47 percent from 2004 to 2007.

These outcomes should come as no surprise. A growing body of research, including a report published by the National Institute of Justice, finds that locking up young people increases their likelihood of rearrest while reducing their educational and employment prospects. If the goal is to improve the prospects for such youths becoming productive adults, researchers and juvenile justice professionals recognize that locked custody should be reserved for only the most dangerous cases. Former New York probation commissioner Martin Horn summed up this research when he announced the city's intention to send no city youth to state reform schools. "Our innovation began," he said, "with the recognition that an honest appraisal of the long-term consequences of confining juveniles demonstrates its destructiveness."

Suddenly, our positive outcomes are drawing favorable attention to our city's once-derided system. New Beginnings has already been visited by judges from China's highest court and officials from Russia's Duma and Great Britain's justice ministry. Juvenile justice chiefs from Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming have also toured the facility. In 2008, DYRS was named one of the "Top 50" most innovative programs in the nation by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And the department's former nemesis, the lead plaintiff's counsel in the Jerry M. lawsuit, said in 2008: "The current DYRS administration has made more progress toward achieving the goals of the Consent Decree in the past three years than we had seen in the previous 20 years of this lawsuit."

To be sure, our reforms were resisted by some legal system stakeholders and union bosses. No matter how bad the status quo is, it is often clung to out of fear of the unknowns associated with reform.

But data from academia, experience from a majority of states and, most important, these home-grown results bear out what Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council knew when they established and supported our department: When youth are treated the way any of us would want our own children treated if they were in trouble with the law, we are a more decent and safer society.

The writer is outgoing director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. He is leaving to become commissioner of probation in New York City.

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