A rushed judgment of D.C.'s new juvenile justice chief

Friday, July 23, 2010

ADVOCATES FOR the District's troubled youth are concerned about Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's decision to appoint a new leader of the city's juvenile justice system. But their charges that Mr. Fenty is abandoning reform efforts are reckless and could undermine the reforms they support. Instead of rushing to judgment, they should try to work with the new leadership. For starters, they might want to sit down and actually talk to the new director.

In announcing his decision to replace Marc A. Schindler, interim director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Mr. Fenty made clear he was committed to the reforms, pioneered by Vincent N. Schiraldi, that helped transform the troubled department. Robert Hildum, a D.C. assistant attorney general tapped to replace Mr. Schindler, told us that no one wants a return to the bad old days of juvenile justice when youth were unnecessarily incarcerated, mistreated and given no chance to build new lives. "My mandate from the mayor is that 'we can't go backwards . . . we have to maintain the reform.' "

That, though, didn't stop advocates such as Liz Ryan of the Campaign for Youth Justice to raise the fear of reforms going into "free fall." Others accused Attorney General Peter Nickles, one of the mayor's advisers, of wanting "a more Oak Hill-like facility," a reference to the notorious lockup that was closed in no small measure because of Mr. Nickles's efforts as lead counsel in the Jerry M. litigation. The advocates are demanding an investigation of Mr. Nickles, suggesting he has a conflict of interest in advising the mayor on juvenile justice issues.

This reaction is in keeping with a bunker mentality that too often has brushed aside any criticism of the department as illegitimate. The department can point to significant progress, and Mr. Schindler shares credit for that. But there have been problems, too. In the first five months of 2010, at least nine youths committed to the department were arrested for murder and two others were victims of homicide in the District. There are legitimate concerns about how youth released into the community are supervised and about how the department measures recidivism. The department and its allies in the vigorous advocacy community would serve their cause better by taking such issues seriously than by assuming a defensive crouch.

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