Vincent Schiraldi made the rounds, forgoing the handshake in favor of the chest bump, a greeting not in the standard repertoire of most city officials.
Then again, Schiraldi is not most city officials. As director of the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, he manages the care of about 200 detained youngsters and nearly 400 more in foster care, group homes or other living arrangements. Many of the confined youths were arrested for car theft or drug offenses, but others include runaways and rapists.
Student council members at the Oak Hill juvenile detention facility in Laurel pulled out copies of Schiraldi's plan for the department, which they had already read, to offer their reactions. With family therapy and outreach, activity and job opportunities, as well as intensive case management, he proposes to return many young people to their families or place them in supervised independent living, group homes or monitored foster care.
"You get more freedom, and you also get to make decisions on your own," said one teenager, excited by the prospect of independent living.
Right now, "if you screw up, the choice is between locking you down or nothing," said another.
Increasingly talkative, the young people asked for larger meals, less time kept in their rooms and more soap. They praised photography workshops the department organized but requested better job opportunities. "How about assistant to Schiraldi?" one joked. Schiraldi did not laugh. He nodded, then said, "That's not a bad idea."
Schiraldi later said, "It's amazing how simple their requests are. Soap. Think about what their demands were. They were asking about tutoring. It's counterintuitive."
For Schiraldi, who for years pressed for juvenile justice reform, running a system he once vocally protested is a dream come true -- but also a challenge.
Growing up in a working-class Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, Schiraldi saw friends jailed for drug-dealing, car theft and murder. "They always came out worse, and we always looked up to them more," he recalled. During college, he worked in group homes. When he returned to Brooklyn, he was horrified to see and hear of childhood friends sleeping on benches or dying of AIDS in prison, no better off for their years in and out of youth facilities.
After getting a master's degree in social work, he spent the 1980s and '90s with criminal justice reform nonprofit groups, becoming executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. In 1996, he started the Justice Policy Institute in the District.
During that time, Oak Hill was deteriorating. Over two decades, there was a new youth services administrator almost yearly. Mismanagement, abuse, overcrowding, escapes, violence and lack of rehabilitation made it notorious. The Youth Services Administration, then part of the Department of Human Services, failed to comply with a consent decree and faced the possibility of being placed under court receivership.
One solution to the problems and "chronic lack of leadership," said Todd Cox of the Public Defender Service for the District, was to create a Cabinet-level department run by someone with a "deep commitment to and expertise in juvenile justice." Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) chose Schiraldi. He was confirmed by the D.C. Council in February.
Schiraldi said he is still adjusting to his role, learning to use "a little more honey and a little less vinegar." He firmly believes that large, locked institutions, like Oak Hill, worsen negative behaviors, he said. In the District, 32 percent of juvenile offenders end up in adult prison within three years, Schiraldi said. In Missouri, that figure is 8 percent. By the 1980s, Missouri had replaced all large institutions with rehabilitation homes of about 20 beds each and many programs, group sessions and high staff-youth ratios. Missouri's per-capita cost is lower than the District's.
A wealth of evidence suggests that such systems as Missouri's substantially lower recidivism with little risk to the community, said Barry C. Feld, a University of Minnesota law professor and juvenile justice scholar.
"When you have large numbers of inmates, there is a primary influence placed on security and authoritarian controls, and that produces the most violent, negative and hostile inmate subcultures. . . . Staff, themselves, end up resorting to violence . . . to control it," he said. In smaller settings, staff workers can cultivate positive behavior, he said.
Schiraldi has reduced the confined population by 23 percent in seven months, even as serious crime by juveniles in the District fell. He appointed a new director at Oak Hill and shut the worst units to improve the facility until it is replaced, slated for fall 2006.
Schiraldi's new employment opportunities for youths include 30 UPS jobs this fall and jobs in the juvenile facilities. He is working to create entrepreneurial programs that put abilities to legal uses. "These kids learn a certain skill set when they sell drugs," he explained. "They can use that. You buy an ounce of pot, you divide it into nickel bags, you mark it up. . . You gotta make a profit."
In one innovation, some juvenile offenders in the community are taken to a supervised center from 3 to 9 p.m. for sports, academic help and dinner and then taken home, said Mai Fernandez of the Latin American Youth Center, which Schiraldi chose for the pilot program.
Not everything has gone smoothly during Schiraldi's tenure. Warehouse glitches and hoarding have prevented such necessities as underwear and soap from reaching some young people. On a visit to Oak Hill in July, Schiraldi could thrust his arm through gaping holes in the dirty drywall of some units.
Although a broad spectrum of people in community groups praise Schiraldi's philosophy of more incentives and less punishment, it still meets some skepticism -- at times in the juvenile facilities.
"It's always about rewarding. There's enough rewarding. They need discipline," one officer said during a lively staff discussion about the direction Oak Hill is headed. Schiraldi replied that discipline alone is not the answer: "You ain't gonna punish the badness out of them."
An hour later, he left Oak Hill's razor-wire enclosed compound for the Youth Services Center. Photos of people who have succeeded despite incarceration during their youth cover the walls near his office.
Creating models in the District that bring more success stories seemed to weigh heavily on him. "We have a hangover from our incarceration binge," he remarked.
His enthusiasm quickly resumed. "Hopefully we'll drink some tomato juice and get better," he quipped.
Then he went back to work.