DYRS has made great strides, but more are needed

Monday, July 12, 2010; A14

AREPORT BY the court monitor in the long-running lawsuit over the District's juvenile justice system shows that, despite high-profile problems, the city is on the right track with its reforms. Indeed, the progress being made in a number of critical areas should prod city officials to resolve the lingering deficiencies that threaten to undermine the good work.

In a report filed last week, Grace M. Lopes, special arbiter in the 25-year-old Jerry M. class-action lawsuit, credited the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) with making "very significant progress" in meeting court requirements for how committed and detained youth are housed, educated and provided with exercise and recreational programs. Singled out for high praise was the education program at New Beginnings, the department's secure facility in Maryland for committed juveniles. The Maya Angelou Academy, operated by the See Forever Foundation, was called one of the "best programs" ever seen by Ms. Lopes's education expert; its transformation, from one of the nation's worst programs to one of its finest, was characterized as "remarkable." The better the department educates its troubled youths, the less likely they will reoffend. The jurisdiction on which the District modeled its reforms, Missouri, is reported to have the lowest recidivism rate in the country. Treating troubled youths humanely and protecting public safety are not mutually exclusive, and DYRS officials have reported encouraging progress in reducing the city's rate of recidivism. Those facts have sometimes gotten lost in the understandable concern about community safety that has accompanied recent crimes involving juveniles supervised by the department.

Still, it would be a mistake for officials to view this glowing court report as reason not to address the department's management and systemic failures. If anything, it should spur them to redouble efforts to apprehend youths who abscond, to provide enough secure beds and to properly supervise youths released into the community. Failure to improve these efforts could undermine public support for reform.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty deserves credit for continuing the sweeping reforms started by his predecessor, Anthony A. Williams, and sticking by the changes even as criticism mounted. But there is still work to be done.

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