BY RICHARD A. MENDEL
February 11, 2008
Few things in life are more refreshing than watching a seasoned, principled, persuasive journalistic lion set his sights on a troubled bureaucracy, uncover a slew of eye-opening anecdotes and disturbing data, and demand answers.
At least nine times since Oct. 6, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Colbert King has focused his weekly column on the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and lambasted the agency for focusing more on protecting kids’ liberties than on ensuring safety for the public — or the kids themselves.
King’s concern is commendable, and his series of commentaries would be a great public service … except for one thing. He has gotten the bigger story about D.C. youth corrections wrong. Deeply, dangerously, counter-productively wrong.
Time and again, King has fixated on isolated errors and tragedies — setbacks that are unsurprising, even inevitable, in any big-city system working with behaviorally troubled youth. Meanwhile, the real story goes unreported: There is overwhelming evidence that the District’s long-troubled juvenile justice system is, at long last, improving.
On Oct. 20, 2007, for instance, King devoted his column to a 17-year-old who was involved in a shootout with police (and suffered a gunshot wound) after running away while out on a one-day pass from the DYRS’s Oak Hill correctional facility. “The department’s handling of juvenile offenders demands scrutiny,” King declared.
Now, even one such incident is one more than anyone would wish. Yet the reality is that runaways from DYRS custody have plummeted in recent years. One 2002 news report found that 22 out of 122 youths confined at Oak Hill escaped in just nine months, and many eluded capture for months.
Since Vincent Schiraldi, the current DYRS director, arrived in January 2005, just three Oak Hill residents have escaped, and all three were recaptured within hours. Overall, just 5 percent of all youth under DYRS supervision are in runaway status today. The comparable figure in 2003 was 26 percent.
King’s Oct. 27 column lamented the loss of 44 D.C. youth during 2005 and 2006 who were killed — 88 percent by gunshot — while “involved with” or “assigned to” the department.
Yet most of these young people were lower-level offenders who had spent time in a DYRS detention center — many just a few nights — before being placed on court-administered probation or having their cases dismissed. In fact, just 15 of the 44 young people killed were ever under the agency’s active supervision. The homicide death rate among youth actually under active DYRS supervision has fallen by half since 2005.
More disturbing than King’s omissions, though, are the assumptions that seem to underlie his columns — assumptions that evoke the dark turn our nation took during the 1990s, when the politics of youth crime grew harsh and the only acceptable answer was “get tough.”
It was an article of faith in those days, simply a given, that holding youth in custody was the best way to protect the public — and the best way to protect wayward kids and teach them a needed lesson. Anyone eager to return to those days can find ammunition in King’s columns.
His Oct. 13 column, “Is D.C. Soft on Juvenile Offenders?” cited unnamed sources warning that the DYRS “is prematurely releasing into the community juveniles who have committed serious offenses.” He reported that critics regard Schiraldi “as a soft touch whom streetwise youths can skillfully manipulate.”
On Nov. 17, King went even further — directly linking the deaths of two DYRS wards killed in 2007 while under community supervision (rather than behind bars) to cases of blatant corruption and fraud by employees in other D.C. government agencies, with the stories bound together under the headline “Indifference That Can Kill.”
Under Schiraldi, the District has reduced the number of youth in confinement, from a high of 253 in early 2005 to an average of 176 in November 2007. These reductions have rankled many DYRS staffers as well as some judges and court officials, which may well explain the flurry of leaked confidential case records that have fueled King’s columns.
IN THE COMMUNITY
Yet where King seems to deride this trend as soft, easily manipulated justice (at best) or corrupt indifference (at worst), there are often sound reasons to keep delinquent youth in the community.
One is that many incarcerated youth — both in the District and nationwide — pose a minimal threat to public safety. In one of his first acts as DYRS director, Schiraldi commissioned an analysis of youth confined at Oak Hill. Remarkably, 42 percent of the youth sent to the facility from January 2004 to June 2005 had been convicted only of misdemeanors, drug possession, or lower-level first-offense felonies. Just 17 percent were serious or chronic offenders.
Deinstitutionalizing low-level offenders also allows correctional facilities to intensify treatment for more dangerous youth. Before Schiraldi’s reforms, serious offenders at Oak Hill were being confined an average of just 63 days. They now spend 9 to 12 months in custody receiving a coherent rehabilitative treatment program. Serious offenders now make up three-fifths of all Oak Hill residents.
In addition, incarceration often increases the criminality of youth offenders. Across the nation, virtually every study examining recidivism among youth sentenced to corrections facilities shows that at least 50 percent to 70 percent of offenders are arrested within one or two years after release — even youth who did not have serious offending histories beforehand.
By contrast, some home-based treatments sharply reduce the criminality of youth — and at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. Three family-focused interventions — a short-term treatment foster care model and two different intensive family-therapy approaches — have lowered the criminality of participating youth repeatedly in clinical trials.
Under Schiraldi, the DYRS has initiated all three. Each costs far less than the $245 per day the District spends for youth at Oak Hill, and each promises to save D.C. taxpayers far more through lower recidivism.
The department has also developed two new programs to reduce the number of accused youth locked in detention pending trial. Evening reporting centers supervise youth after school five days per week, while intensive monitoring programs employ community youth workers to track youth with up to three face-to-face visits per day. The programs have enrolled nearly 500 youth, achieving 93 percent and 95 percent success rates in preventing re-arrests and ensuring that youth appear at court hearings.
The ultimate results of Schiraldi’s reforms remain to be seen. Some significant problems certainly remain. Yet the only fair measure of success is to compare the agency’s effectiveness today with its effectiveness before Schiraldi’s arrival three years ago.
Yet here, King’s columns have been eerily silent. Not once in his nine columns has King mentioned the 1986 court-supervised reform plan, which the District agreed to in the Jerry M. litigation, to remedy woeful conditions in youth corrections centers and a dire lack of community programs. For two decades, the District and its long-troubled Youth Services Administration alternated between bungling the plan and neglecting it, earning repeated contempt citations and millions in fines.
In June 2003, a Washington Post series revealed that delinquent teens were absconding at will from group homes and wreaking havoc all over the city. A month later the agency’s director was forced out. In January 2004, a nationally recognized juvenile justice expert testifying in the Jerry M. case lambasted the Youth Services Administration’s performance and recommended that courts take over the agency.
Ultimately, the District staved off receivership by replacing the agency with a renamed, Cabinet-level department and by hiring Schiraldi, a respected juvenile reform advocate, as its director. In December — just short of three years into Schiraldi’s tenure — the plaintiffs in the Jerry M. case rescinded their petition to place the DYRS in receivership. “We have seen more progress toward compliance in the last two years,” lead counsel Alan Pemberton said, “than we saw in the previous 20 years.”
When the D.C. Council convened a hearing in early December to investigate King’s complaints, virtually every witness rose not to rebuke the agency but to sing its praises.
Acting Deputy Attorney General Robert Hildum, who oversees all D.C. juvenile prosecutions, lauded the department for introducing “a series of reforms and practices that will greatly benefit the District of Columbia” and help make our neighborhoods safer.
Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund said in written testimony that “we are finally on track towards developing a juvenile justice system in the District of which we can all be proud.”
Jeffrey Butts, a national juvenile justice scholar, said that the District, long perceived as “a backwater of waste and ineffectiveness,” has become “a beacon of innovation and leadership in juvenile justice.” He called the District “the leader of a new movement to employ the principles of positive youth development to guard the public safety while improving the life chances of young offenders.”
Paul Demuro, the expert whose scathing 2004 testimony almost landed the District in receivership, isn’t yet willing to declare the DYRS a national model. But, as he told me, the current DYRS administration is “accomplishing substantial reform of a juvenile system that for years has been in dire need of reform.”
This is the real story about D.C. juvenile justice. It needs to be told.
Richard A. Mendel, an independent writer and researcher based in Baltimore, is the author of several national studies on youth crime and juvenile justice.
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