District earmark money could have been spent helping juvenile offenders

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, March 13, 2010

Earmarks -- the practice of steering money to pet projects and programs through D.C. spending bills -- take on new meaning when stacked against city services that suffer because of money woes. Think of the $10 million to Ford's Theatre Society, the Lincoln Theatre's $1 million and $2 million in earmarks handed over to the now-sold Southeastern University. Then there's the Washington Ballet's $1 million earmark and thousands of dollars directed to the likes of the National Building Museum, the Ethiopia Community Service and Development Council, the GALA Hispanic Theatre and the for-profit Horning Brothers.

In all, $47.9 million of D.C. taxpayer money was awarded in no-bid earmarks to 154 groups in fiscal 2009.

The D.C. Council brags that it finally discovered its ethics pulse and has imposed a moratorium on this troubling practice.

The fact is, D.C. budget money that could, and should, have been used to support vital public programs has been directed by city politicians to favored groups without any competition. Think of that $48 million should you hear that the 15-year-old boy charged this week in the murder of Joel Watkins, also 15, is being placed in the care and custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (that is, unless he is charged as an adult -- an unlikely event since he has no criminal record).

There's a dearth of personnel in DYRS because of city spending pressures, and no additional hiring is authorized, according to an internal DYRS staff memo.

Remember that situation when tight-budgeted DYRS, implementing its lenient inmate-release policy, sends the alleged shooter back into the community. How will DYRS give him the needed onitoring, counseling and supervision, and protection against reprisals? It can't.

Numbers in the February memo speak for themselves. Under the Fenty administration, the number of youth offenders committed to the city's custody has reached more than 800 -- an all-time high. About 27 DYRS social workers are responsible for those youth and their families.

That comes to roughly 30 cases per worker, which in a 40-hour workweek is about 1.1 hours a week or 4.4 hours a month per offender, according to the memo. A suggested national average is between 15 and 20 cases per worker.

Recall those earmarks.

The millions given to Ford's Theatre Society could have provided the social workers, home-based counselors and intensive supervision staff to work with released youth in the community.

But the money's gone, some of it ending up in an earmark for the Avalon Theatre.

The District has little or no access to group home placements for young offenders, no therapeutic group home beds and sparse independent-living slots, according to the memo. Money that could have been used for those facilities was given to the Washington National Opera, the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce and the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

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