Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director
Good Afternoon Chairman Mendelson. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. I appear at this budget oversight hearing to ask that the Department of Corrections (DOC) pay particular attention to expanding the available programming for juveniles in DOC facilities and that this committee support the Department of Corrections (DOC) with the necessary resources to do so.
As I stated at the performance oversight hearing, I, along with Liz Ryan from the Campaign for Youth Justice had the opportunity to meet with Director Faust and his staff to address a number of issues including: 1) conditions of confinement at the unit; 2) severe lack of daily programming and other services; 3) staff training on adolescent development; and 4) best practices for juvenile detention and corrections standards for the unit. He assured us and I am satisfied that the Director is committed to expanding the programming available to youth under the DOC’s custody and we are pleased that he expressed a willingness to maintain an open line of communication between his office and those of us who work with youth in the District.
With respect to the youth housed at CTF, I believe that it is a good thing that the Department is undertaking an in-house assessment of the available programming for young people. However, I would ask (and were Ms. Ryan here today, her testimony would make the same request) that this committee support with accompanying funding, an independent assessment of the programs for youth at CTF. Following this assessment, I know that DC Lawyers for Youth along with the Campaign for Youth Justice will work with Director Faust and the Department to identify federal, city, and private resources to fill in any gaps identified by the assessment. Additionally, I would recommend that this Committee set aside approximately $500,000 which could be used to leverage federal and private resources to implement additional programming at CTF.
I have also included a number of recommendations that I testified to at the last hearing. I will not read them into the record at this point, but they are included for the record in my written testimony. Thank you for your time and consideration of my recommendations. DCLY looks forward to continuing to work with you and members of this committee to continue to improve juvenile justice systems within the District. If you have any questions regarding my testimony, I would be happy to answer them.
1. I urge the committee to work with Mr. Faust to provide the necessary supports to substantially overhaul the management and conditions of the Juvenile Unit at the Central Treatment Facility (CTF) to:
- Increase daily programming (through federal grants; involving more community and volunteer groups);
- Improve access to counseling and mental health services;
- Institute a family engagement program and increase visitation hours for families of youth;
- Overhaul and create higher quality educational programming in collaboration with the DCPS.
2. To ensure that effective programming can be put into place, I urge the committee to provide the necessary supports to Director Faust to conduct a complete assessment of programs and services for the Juvenile Unit;
3. Once an assessment is conducted, I urge the committee to assist Director Faust in identifying federal, city and private resources to fill in the gaps identified by the assessment;
4. I ask the committee to support Director Faust in instituting intensive training for all staff who interact with youth on the Juvenile Unit on positive youth development approaches and adolescent development, and creating new standards for the care and custody of youth at the unit that are consistent with best practices in juvenile justice for detention and corrections.
5. I urge the committee to request that the DOC report on progress on the above listed issues on a quarterly basis to this committee.
6. In addition to the steps that Director Faust and his staff are undertaking within the agency, I urge the committee to put in place measures to ensure the meaningful and on-going input of the youth and families who are affected by the justice system on DOC operations in the following ways:
- Invite youth detained or incarcerated at CTF and their families to talk with you and your staff as you consider DOC oversight issues and policy reforms on youth in the adult criminal justice system.
- Create a community stakeholder committee, including parents and families of youth currently or formerly at CTF and/or the D.C. Jail, to advise the committee on DOC issues on a monthly basis; and
- Establish an independent monitoring capacity in a local non-profit organization with 24 hour access to CTF to ensure the safety and appropriate care of the youth at the Juvenile Unit at CTF, to receive complaints, and to report on the status of these youth monthly to this committee.