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

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 24, 2010; A13

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.

-- DYRS has a flawed method of deciding youth placement.

The investigation found that DYRS considers only the terms of a youth's conviction, known as "adjudication," in determining a youth's risk level for placement. It does not take into account the circumstances or facts of the crime or the youth's criminal history. For example, if a youth commits an armed robbery but pleads guilty to robbery or theft, DYRS considers the lesser offense in deciding where to place the offender.

The investigation concluded that DYRS procedures and practices favor release to the community without regard to youths' needs, past criminal acts or potential for reoffending.

-- DYRS has lax rules on community placements.

The investigation found several cases of youths violating the terms of their release agreements yet being moved to less restrictive placements. Moreover, it noted, DYRS files showed no signs of youths being penalized -- with, for example, additional time, more restrictions or loss of privileges.

Youth also were moved through group homes and allowed to return to their homes without regard to how well they were doing or whether they had been rehabilitated.

Regarding DYRS claims of decreasing juvenile crime, the investigation found that juvenile arrests are rising in absolute numbers, reaching a high of almost 550 arrests for serious violent crimes such as homicide, rape and robbery in 2009, and that this is happening as violent crime for adults is substantially decreasing.

The attorney general's office presented Fenty with several recommendations to strengthen the juvenile justice program. The most striking one called for more secure facilities for juveniles. The much-heralded $46 million New Beginnings, a 60-bed detention facility in Laurel, is, as predicted, already overcrowded.

I've written more than 30 columns critical of DYRS since 2007. Fenty can't say he wasn't warned. Credit him with finally acting.


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