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What Really Works In DC Justice System?

 New America Media, Commentary, David Muhammad

Editor’s Note: NAM contributor David Muhammad, who helped reform Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice system over the past four years, discovered that when it comes to criminal justice issues, change is not always welcome. America is addicted to incarceration, Muhammad writes, and any attempt to make improvements is likely to stir up fierce resistance. That’s what happened in the nation’s capital, where the reforms he worked on contributed to lower recidivism, lower juvenile crime, and higher community placements for youth upon release. But he and his colleagues also came under fire after several high-profile murders by teenagers, and the Washington Post published numerous editorials implying that they were soft on crime.

WASHINGTON - On the cover of Parade magazine last year was an article by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia deploring America’s fixation with locking up as many people as possible. Just this summer, the cover of The Economist declared, “America locks up too many people.” 

When even a senator from a red-leaning state like Virginia, or a publication as conservative at the Economist starts calling for prison reform, you know the system is seriously troubled. And what better place to start fixing what’s broken than the juvenile justice system in Washington, D.C., a city with a long, sad history of failing its youth? Yet the opposition my colleagues and I encountered — despite our many achievements — shows just how difficult it will be to end this country’s addiction to incarceration.

In the mid-2000s, D.C.’s juvenile justice system was in horrible shape, despite a 20-year court battle to improve conditions. Recidivism rates were astronomical. The notorious Oak Hill Youth Center, built in the 1960s to hold 180 juveniles, housed 250 instead. Education at the facility was a joke. The report of a court-appointed monitor described rats and roaches in cells and inmates urinating and defecating on themselves because guards wouldn’t allow them out to use the bathroom. 

This was the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) that a new group of juvenile justice advocates and reformers inherited. We went to work right away to make radical and far-reaching transformations. 

We closed that old, dilapidated facility and opened a state-of-the-art treatment center based on an interactive, personal approach — small residential settings, intense peer and professional counseling. Known as the Missouri Model, this approach was developed by the state of Missouri, which has the lowest rate of juvenile repeat offenders in the nation.

We kicked out the public school and hired the See Forever Foundation, a private organization that had been effective in running charter schools in D.C. Before long, we had instituted a series of educational improvements, including five innovative new vocational training programs, better student-teacher ratios and high-tech teaching aids like SMART boards in every classroom. The new education program, known as the Maya Angelou Academy, was so successful that today, the New Beginnings Youth Development Center (as Oak Hill’s replacement facility was renamed) attracts juvenile justice leaders from around the world looking for ideas and inspiration. 

But it wasn’t enough to revamp how we dealt with young people while they were locked up. Once they were released back into the community, they needed better supervision and more services to make a successful transition and end the cycle of crime. We adopted several so-called “evidence-based practices”— methods of dealing with troubled juveniles that have stood up to rigorous evaluation by the federal government. One was Multisystemic Therapy, an intensive family- and community-based treatment program that focuses on the entire world of chronic and violent juvenile offenders —their homes and families, schools and teachers, neighborhoods and friends. Another was Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care — a cost-effective alternative to regular foster care that relies on trained foster families, therapists, and case managers to provide youth with the skills and structure the need to modify their behavior and reduce delinquency.

Then we added employment readiness programs and civic participation initiatives, and we significantly increased the amount and quality of the supervision ex-offenders receive. Probation officers and social workers saw their caseloads drop nearly in half, while the number of regular contacts with kids under their supervision jumped from one per month to six per month. Higher-risk youths began receiving daily monitoring. 

These “reentry” reforms culminated with the launch of Regional Service Coalitions, a groundbreaking initiative that gave community organizations a greater role in providing services to former offenders and reduced the involvement of government bureaucracies. Larger nonprofits with proven track records created networks of community-based providers that helped young people reintegrate into their own neighborhoods so they would be less likely to re-offend. 

Together these reforms were known as Positive Youth Development. Instead of punishing young offenders and focusing on their deficits, we established a system that sought to build on their strengths and assets. 

Many juveniles suffering in the city’s old Oak Hill facility were not violent and were not threats to the community. Many were just waiting for a bed in a group to become available. But they would wait for many months in horrifying conditions, surrounded by older, higher-risk youths who served as their negative role models. Over time, they would become lost, too. 

We succeeded in reducing the number of young people who were incarcerated, improving the educational outcomes, and reducing recidivism. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the practices we established are far more effective and cost-efficient than the old corrections model.

But doing what works is also controversial. We were constantly accused by a small vocal group of “coddling criminals.” Critics continually looked for evidence that the reforms were failing, seizing on exceptional cases to “prove” their point. Though these cases sometimes had little to do with DYRS and were statistically insignificant, the critics tried to convince the public otherwise. 

One of the most sensational and tragic stories involved three young men under the supervision of DYRS who were accused of the murder of a popular middle-school principal. Though all three had already spent more time incarcerated as juveniles than they would have in the adult system, critics argued that they should have remained locked up until their 21st birthdays (the longest sentence allowed by law). Though research shows that more prolonged incarceration would likely have made these youths even more hardened and violent, it’s also inarguable that if they had been locked up, that particular tragedy would not have occurred.

No question, that case deserved the attention it received. But the media’s other coverage of the agency sometimes verged on the bizarre. One example involved a teenager who had been committed to DYRS for relatively minor offenses, then turned his life around: he graduated from high school, got an internship on Capitol Hill, and went off to college. With financial assistance from DYRS, he had two very good semesters at a university in West Virginia. While home for the summer, he had a job and checked in frequently with his case manager. But one night in a park across the street from his house, the student and an acquaintance started exchanging insults —known as “playing the dozens.” In a tragic tale of easy access to firearms and the devaluing of life, the student was gunned down by the man whom he had known as his friend. 

A few local pundits, apparently hell-bent on returning to the bad old days of juvenile justice in Washington, blamed DYRS for the murder. Instead of going to college, they said, the young man should have been locked up, where he would have been “safe.” 

In a 2007 report entitled “Motivating Offenders to Change,” the Department of Justice looked at evidence-based practices and why they are not being widely utilized. The report lamented: “Criminal justice is one of the few fields that still tolerates quackery, and what is done in corrections would be grounds for malpractice in medicine.” 

I leave Washington, D.C., happy and proud of the great work we did, though I am also concerned because there remains much work to do. But sometimes you only have the four- or eight-year cycle of a mayoral or gubernatorial administration to make lasting reforms. 

I now move on to the Big Apple, teaming up again with the recently appointed commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation, Vincent Schiraldi, the man who brought me to Washington. The reforms in New York will be much different but just as important: doing what works and what’s right
so that the public is safer and those who have committed crimes get the accountability and rehabilitation they need.

(The writer is the outgoing Chief of Committed Services
for the juvenile justice system in Washington, D.C. and the
incoming Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New York


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