Juvenile justice challenges await D.C. Mayor-elect Gray

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 10:58 PM

Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray can only hope that better times are ahead for the District's juvenile justice agency.

For nearly a year, he has watched from his seat on the City Council as one crisis after another has buffeted the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. At least a dozen wards under its care have been charged with murder this year, according to the agency. At least 10 others have been homicide victims.

The number of juveniles placed with the department continues to rise. New Beginnings, a facility that opened last year for long-term juvenile detainees, is overcrowded. The department's relations with D.C. Superior Court and its juvenile probation unit are strained. W ith the resignation last week of yet another interim director, no fewer than four people may, by year's end, have headed the agency since January.

As mayor, Gray (D) will inherit responsibility for all the problems of an agency that, improved as it is from five years ago, still struggles to supervise and rehabilitate the city's youngest offenders. After the events of the past year, the city is again debating its obligation to help and its inclination to punish.

"It's a balance; it's got to be a balance," Gray said in a brief interview last week. "I think the trick is finding what the right balance is."

Even when the crime rate overall is falling or flat, a killing by a juvenile can seize the public's imagination in a way few other crimes do. Accordingly, DYRS has an outsize role in shaping perceptions of just how safe the District is.

Outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) saw that this year.

After a fatal drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street on March 30, the administration faced a barrage of questions about the DYRS, which had been supervising the 14-year-old charged as the getaway driver.

The youth was exonerated a few weeks later, but by then the criticism had taken on a life of its own.

Fenty and DYRS were on the defensive, and they would remain there. Weeks later, a teen who had walked away from a DYRS group home was charged with killing a well-liked D.C. school principal.

The pressure divided the administration. Fenty had been a champion of the reform effort, which focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. But his attorney general and confidant, Peter Nickles, emerged as a vocal critic of DYRS.

With the mayoral primary a couple of months away, Fenty decided to oust the DYRS director, Marc A. Schindler, and replace him with the city's chief juvenile prosecutor, Robert Hildum. Hildum, in turn, resigned last week after it became clear he was a long shot to lead the agency under Gray.

Out of 'comfort zone'

Created six years ago as a cabinet-level department, DYRS was led for nearly five years by its first director, Vincent N. Schiraldi. He departed in January for a job in New York.

Under Schiraldi, the agency promised a more rehabilitative, less punitive approach to young offenders. The approach was controversial - and so was Schiraldi, who earned the praise of some and enmity of others but oversaw major changes. Most significant were the closure of the notorious Oak Hill Youth Center and the opening of New Beginnings, a $46 million, 60-bed facility that was to symbolize the agency's shift in thinking.

DYRS supervises about a thousand people, twice as many as about five years ago. This occurred even though the number of juvenile arrests has risen more slowly in recent years and is on pace to register a decline this year.

For all of the effort and money invested in New Beginnings and the attention it has attracted, few of those under DYRS purview are in the 60-bed facility. Many observers note that far less attention has been paid to the programs that serve hundreds of young offenders who are being supervised in the community.

"The community services are just not there," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose runs the council committee that oversees DYRS.

It is a view shared closer to the ground.

A man in his early 20s who was in the juvenile justice system and now counsels youths at New Beginnings said many of them don't trust the promises they hear from staff.

"The social workers be lying to them about getting out, about different programs and stuff like that," said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the offenders he counsels.

Often, the man said, programs for offenders are in distant neighborhoods, out of their "comfort zone," so they don't bother going.

'It can be fixed'

A $3.4 million initiative started last year was supposed to strengthen those very services.

Under the initiative, a so-called lead entity community organization works with DYRS to coordinate the work of other community-based organizations to tutor and mentor youths and connect them with services. But as its first year concludes, the initiative is falling short in the eyes of some close observers.

"For the lead entities to work, there has to be very clear, focused, urgent direction from the agency on exactly what they're supposed to be doing with each child in the community," Wells said. That, he said, hasn't been provided.

Alan A. Pemberton, an attorney for the plaintiffs in a long-running class-action suit against the city's juvenile justice agency, said he wants the initiative to work. "At this point, I'd say it can be fixed," Pemberton said. "I think, potentially, it's a state-of-the-art way of providing community services, but it does need careful quality control by the city."

Neither of the lead entity organizations, East of the River Clergy Police Community Partnership or Progressive Life Center, responded to a request for comment.

The future of the initiative is one of the many issues that the Gray administration will have to address.

"Does he want to continue to use a community-based system?" Wells said. "If he does, he really has to address the lack of services that are out there."

In the interview last week, Gray said that he is committed to the notion of community rehabilitation for juvenile delinquents, who almost always return to their old neighborhoods. "To get kids ready to live in the community, there's got to be opportunities for them to interact with the community," the mayor-elect said.

It is not unfamiliar territory for Gray, who is steeped in the troubles of young people and the challenges of social services.

As the city's director of human services in the early 1990s, Gray oversaw the juvenile justice agency when it was far more troubled than it is today. Later, as the head of Covenant House, he worked with poor and homeless young people. And as council chairman, Gray made oversight of D.C. Public Schools a function of the entire council and held monthly Saturday morning hearings just for young people so he could hear their concerns about life in the District.

But after he is sworn in Jan. 2, Gray will be the mayor. When people in the District are worried about crime, they will look to him for solutions.

"I happen to have supported the efforts that Mr. Schiraldi made, because I had seen so many years of failed efforts just from the punitive, correctional approach to kids," Gray said. "As a framework, I want to continue (the rehabilitative approach). But we've got to look at the public safety issues. I want to see the data, to see those who committed these crimes."

cauvinh@washpost.com Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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