D.C. Investigates Actions Of Juvenile Justice Agency

Serious juvenile crime dropped 24 percent from January 2004 to August 2008. The recidivism rate, reflecting the percentage of youths re-arrested within a year of release from custody, is 25 percent, lower than in Virginia (38 percent) and Maryland (32 percent).

District arrests for serious juvenile crime are down 24 percent, the 12-month recidivism rate has dropped 6 percent and the most serious young offenders are locked up longer than they were four years ago, the city’s juvenile justice agency reported yesterday.

But Cheryl Harris said the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services ignored her pleas to lock up her son for violating his curfew, getting high on marijuana and skipping school. In March, 15-year-old Ryan Harris was shot twice in the head in front of his grandmother’s house in Northeast Washington. Technically, he was still under District supervision.

“I begged them to put him back,” Harris told the D.C. Council in a hearing on juvenile justice yesterday. “I asked them for [electronic] monitoring. I left messages for the case manager. We also tried to get him in an alternative school. They said it would take time.”

Harris’s comments came during the latest investigation into whether the agency is putting residents and delinquent youths in danger by releasing them from custody too soon. The agency, once called the Youth Services Administration, has paid millions in court-ordered fines for poor treatment of children and for doing little to reduce crime.

The agency’s director, Vincent Schiraldi, was hired in January 2005 to bring the changes that experts said were necessary: more rehabilitation, more counseling and a focus on family unification. Schiraldi said that progress is being made but that even one child killed is too many.

Serious juvenile crime dropped 24 percent from January 2004 to August 2008. The recidivism rate, reflecting the percentage of youths re-arrested within a year of release from custody, is 25 percent, lower than in Virginia (38 percent) and Maryland (32 percent).

“I don’t think you pop any champagne corks over the behavior of a small number of kids in a short period of time,” Schiraldi said. “The idea that this is somehow a cavalier jail break is not borne out by the data. There’s tons of more work to be done.”

Yesterday’s hearing was called by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose office has been investigating complaints that the agency is too lenient and often unresponsive to concerns expressed by community groups that youths scheduled for release are in danger.

Six youths in the agency’s care have been killed this year. Four were killed in 2007 and seven in 2006. Wells asked whether the deaths pointed to systemic failures and whether anything could have been done to prevent them.

Wells said his staff review found that the agency was lax in overseeing curfews, closed cases because youths did not comply with services and, in at least one case, dropped a youth off for a home visit without getting the parent’s signature as required. The youth was killed in another part of the city that night. Wells said such lapses are important because, of the 650 youths committed to the agency’s care, 315 live at home.

“I’m trying to get some confidence that you’re plugging the gap,” Wells told Schiraldi.

Since Schiraldi arrived, the number of youths kept in locked facilities — the Oak Hill complex in Laurel and the Youth Services Center in Northeast — has declined from 240 to about 170.

As a result, more juvenile offenders are being given alternative sentences in group homes, treatment facilities or in their homes with intensive supervision by outside groups, including the Alliance for Concerned Men and Peaceoholics.

“The work it takes to deal with at-risk children is expensive,” said Ronald Moten, leader of Peaceoholics.

Providing those services has become more challenging as the number of youths committed to the agency has risen. Last year, 309 youths were sent by Superior Court to the agency’s care. This year, 354 have been committed.

The agency has begun efforts to involve families more in what happens to their children and has started to put GPS monitors on the most risky offenders.

Tasha Williams, a correctional officer and Fraternal Order of Police representative, said some youths are being released before they are ready, leading to problems. She questioned whether it’s smart to continually reduce the number of youths in lockup.

“But have the youth been rehabilitated?” she asked.

The Rev. Donald L. Isaac of the East of the River Clergy, Police and Community Partnership said the problem of corralling troubled youths might never go away.

“This is not a problem we can really eliminate,” Isaac said. “It can be controlled. It can be redirected. We need to have a realistic, sober outlook on this.”

Published in: on October 9, 2008 at 11:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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