Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director
Good Afternoon Chairman Graham and members of the Committee on Human Services. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today at this hearing on the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services Budget. Mr. Chairman, the budget request submitted for DYRS is calculated to 1) expand the needs-based community service provision provided by DC Youth Link, 2) continue to ensure and maintain the safety of the youth and staff who are supervised and employed by DYRS, and 3) continue the trajectory of reforming a juvenile justice system that has come a long way since 2005. These are three important aims that we believe are shared by this Committee, the residents of the District, and the young people and their families who are involved with DYRS.
This year’s budget request reflects an investment in DC Youth Link and the organizations that are providing services under its umbrella; organizations that serve young people in their communities and give young people the opportunity to get back on the right track and to stay there. The Agency’s focus must continue to be on accountability and insuring that those young people who are being supervised in the community, who are the majority of DYRS youth, are getting services that are targeted to their needs, are receiving services that are effective and can deliver positive outcomes, and that address public safety concerns. It is important, that DC Youth Link has the budgetary support to improve and become more intentional about creating and implementing needs-based, individualized service plans. However, I also believe that these improvements require that DYRS has adequate funding so that they can successfully create service plans that are tailored to each young person’s unique individual needs and that enable them to build on their existing strengths and interests. I believe that this is the direction DYRS is headed and this Committee should continue to fund the Agency at the level necessary to maintain this direction.
In my testimony a few months ago, I gave a few suggestions for DYRS’ performance in creating needs-based service plans, improving the youth family team meeting process, clarifying and expanding the role of the care coordinator, and for expanding the scope of DC Youth Link. All of these improvements are important and are achievable, we believe, with the funding requested by the Agency for FY15. This is a crucial time for DC Youth Link. The initiative is transitioning between lead agencies and it is important that funding remain at a level that will allow the new Lead Agency to come on board with the resources to continue to work toward these improvements.
I would also like to say a few words today about funding for delinquency diversion and the role it can play in realizing cost-savings. Mr. Chairman, to put it simply, we must look at the front end of the juvenile justice system if we want the best public safety outcomes and the most effective use of District dollars. If our goal is to find cost-savings, then we should not be asking where we can cut DYRS’s budget and short-change the youth under DYRS supervision, but how we can prevent youth from coming into contact with DYRS in the first place. The answer to this question requires taking a bigger picture view of the budget, instead of focusing on the line items proposed by DYRS. In particular, we would propose that additional investments be made to strengthen or create diversion programs at all stages of the juvenile justice system – diversion from arrest, diversion from prosecution, diversion from probation, and diversion from commitment. We believe that there needs to be a line item in the DC Budget for delinquency diversion, preferably under CYITC.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank you for your attention to the matters that I have discussed in my testimony today. Under your leadership of this Committee, DYRS has made important and long-lasting strides in delivering services to young people, in improving its public safety record, in reducing recidivism, and increasing the transparency of its operations. These are all steps that have been made possible by the budgetary support this Committee has shown DYRS by approving its previous fiscal year’s budget requests. I urge this Committee to continue this support and do the same with the FY15 budget request.
I look forward to continuing to work with your office and all those involved in this work to make our system the best it can be for our young people. Thank you for hearing my testimony today and I am available to answer questions.