D.C.'s long-overdue juvenile justice shakeup

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Woefully misinformed are those who claim that Mayor Adrian Fenty's removal this week of Marc Schindler as interim director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and the departure of two Schindler deputies, are a setback for juvenile reforms. Fenty was confronted with overwhelming evidence of serious and recurring DYRS management problems that threaten public safety. He reacted, as a chief executive should. The shakeup was overdue.

Events in the first five months of this year forced Fenty's hand. At least nine youths in DYRS custody were arrested for murder; two others became homicide victims. Fenty correctly ordered a review of DYRS operations.

The probe, conducted by D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, produced findings that left Fenty with little choice: Change DYRS's leadership. (DYRS spokesman Reggie Sanders said Marc Schindler was not available to talk with me about the report.)

The Office of the Attorney General began by looking into the cases of youth in department custody who were murdered or charged with murder this year, those who were rearrested for murder, and those who were charged with assault with attempt to murder since 2009. The OAG reviewed the department's advertised recidivism rate, escapes, the department's methods for classifying and placing offenders in the community, and the city's juvenile crime rates.

Among its findings:

-- DYRS measures recidivism too narrowly.

A 2008 DYRS report asserted that 25 percent of youth committed to department care reoffend within a year. The department, however, defines recidivism as conviction within one year of being placed or returned to the community. It excludes rearrests or reconvictions in jurisdictions other than the District -- although arrests and convictions of D.C. juveniles commonly occur in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, the attorney general's office noted.

The investigation used a measure of recidivism provided by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; its factors include rearrest and referrals to court for non-criminal matters such as curfew violations.

The Justice Department recidivism guidance was applied to the cases of 79 youths committed to DYRS for the first time in the first quarter of 2008. The results were stunning.

Since their commitment just over two years ago, 71 percent had new convictions, and 42 percent of those convictions were for offenses such as robbery, weapons assault and drugs. Moreover, 23 percent of those with new convictions were convicted in the adult system. Those numbers don't even include DYRS youth in the D.C. jail awaiting trial on adult charges.

-- DYRS has a weak policy on abscondence and oversight.

The investigation found several instances where youths disappeared for several days without DYRS requesting the required custody order (or arrest warrant) from the court. In one case, a youth was gone for several weeks before an order was sought. In another case, DYRS gave a third-party monitor "a number of" days to locate a missing youth, and no one sought a custody order.

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