Seventeen-year-old "Derrick" is a drug dealer who thinks he has no future. His troubles began in elementary school. Derrick did not receive the individual attention he needed to overcome his learning problems, and his parents did not know how to help him succeed. Like most delinquents whose reading and math skills are at about the fourth-grade level, attending junior high school seemed senseless, so Derrick dropped out. Without a high school diploma or certification from a vocational program, he started selling drugs.
Derrick was placed on probation last year for his first offense. Although he visited his probation officer weekly, Derrick did not receive the help he needed to stop selling drugs. Daily support and an advocate to arrange special vocational and educational placements were not available. After Derrick's second adjudication, the judge incarcerated him at Oak Hill for nine months. Derrick will probably return to delinquency when he is released -- as has been demonstrated in other communities, community-based programs are more effective at rehabilitation than institutions.
The District cannot continue to lock up so many of its youth. Boston and Pittsburgh, for example, successfully treat most of their delinquents outside of institutions. Nationally, the trend is to lock up only chronic and violent juvenile offenders. In the District, violent juvenile crime has decreased. Last year, four juveniles were arrested for homicide, 18 for rapes and 59 for armed robbery out of more than 3,000 offenses.
About 20 percent of delinquents are chronic or violent offenders. This group should be our target for secure facilities, rather than the 67 percent of committed delinquents now incarcerated at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll and in distant residential placements. The city has undertaken substantial improvements in its institutional programs and could have exemplary secure care if the number of beds at Oak Hill is reduced from 110 to 60 for committed youth. Such a program should guarantee that the small number of truly dangerous delinquents do not escape.
But for the majority who are neither violent nor chronic offenders, rehabilitative services in the community would be more successful in helping them stop their delinquent activities. The city does not have nearly enough effective noninstitutional programs for juveniles. It needs more intensive services in probation, a program for substance-abusing families, therapeutic foster care, therapeutic group homes, a program for juvenile drug dealers and a vocational program for youth who have failed in school.
Some delinquents can attend existing public schools, but most need remedial education not provided by D.C. public schools. Some benefit from existing vocational training, but most need job preparation and a sheltered workshop approach to employment not available from the public schools or other city agencies. Some youths and families go once a week to a community mental health center or to outpatient drug treatment, but most delinquents need family and individual counseling in full-time neighborhood programs.
Someone like Derrick needs:
individual tutoring several hours a day to improve his reading and math skills;
a vocational program taught with materials he can read and offering supervised employment;
values clarification to help him lose interest in the glamorized life style of a drug dealer;
counseling to help him manage his depression and imagine a future for himself;
family services, in part to address the ways in which his family has come to benefit from his delinquency.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Ricardo Urbina recently ordered the city's juvenile justice system to move away from a reliance on incarceration toward placing the majority of delinquents who are not violent or chronic offenders in an array of more effective community-based programs. His Oct. 9 order calls for new group homes for 42 youths, new therapeutic foster homes for 30 youths and a variety of full-time programs for youths who would live at home.
The community may respond to Judge Urbina's order by saying that it cannot tolerate any more treatment programs in residential areas. While this impediment must be taken seriously, discussions with neighborhood groups indicate that they want to be involved in the implementation of programs for delinquents. Neighborhood groups will need strong technical support to operate therapeutic foster care or programs for substance-abusing families. But they are much more likely than institutions to provide youths and their families with permanent support networks.
The problems confronting the District's juvenile justice system cannot be resolved by tinkering with a few programs or institutions operated by one agency. Systemic change must occur, affecting the court, probation officers, attorneys, the Youth Services Administration and the D.C. public schools. This change can occur only through the leadership of the city's administration and judiciary and the involvement of an informed community that recognizes that its future is in its youth -- all youth. -- Marty Beyer, Robert E. Brown and Paul DeMuro The writers prepared the recommendations on which Judge Urbina's Oct. 9 order was based.