Monitoring the District's troubled youth
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 7:59 PM
Joseph Mitchell parallel parks his Ford Explorer in the Huntwood area of Northeast Washington, leaving enough room to pull out quickly - "a little safety thing I do," he says - and walks under a night sky toward an apartment building hidden from view.
He knocks on the first-floor door of a 15-year-old recently charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.
The teenager is joining about a dozen young offenders Mitchell monitors daily on behalf of the District's juvenile justice system, supplementing the work of probation officers and social workers. Mitchell and other monitors - described as the eyes and ears of the system - visit the youngsters in school to make sure they're in class, stop by their homes to make sure they're in by curfew and sit in court with them to make sure they don't feel alone. Seven days a week, at all hours, they walk through some of Washington's roughest neighborhoods and into the lives of troubled youth others might cross the street to avoid.
They do this as part of a job that most people have no idea exists and that now faces competition from a little black box. The city, using a $400,000 grant, has launched a year-long pilot program expanding the use of Global Positioning System devices to monitor juveniles. The devices provide real-time tracking at a lower cost.
With 175 devices at their disposal, juvenile justice officials have until Sept. 30, when the pilot program ends, to weigh the benefits of computerized efficiency against those of human interactions, to ask, among other questions: What is lost when no one knocks on these youngsters' doors every day? And what is that worth in a time of financial strain?
A GPS device, which costs $8 a day per person, can tell authorities at any moment whether the teen isn't where he is supposed to be. A monitor, at a cost of $30 a day per person, can tell them why.
On this night, Mitchell isn't sure what to expect. The teenager's mother opens the door.
"We need to set a time. You can't be popping up here at 9," she says. "I go to bed at 8."
Mitchell, 46, a former elementary school teacher, brushes off the cold reception with a smile. He then explains his role, how he has to check on the teenager three times a day, and offers to drive the young man to a weekly group meeting at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, the nonprofit where Mitchell works.
"You don't want to do all that, do you?" the woman asks her son.
The round-faced boy looks up from a computer in the corner of the room. He's on Twitter. On the wall above him, photos of children, no frames, dangle from pushpins. On the floor below him, a cord stretches from a wall outlet to an ankle bracelet.
He shrugs. "Not really."