Public Hearing before the Committee on Judiciary on the FY2017 Budget of the Department of Corrections

Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo
Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Department of Corrections Budget Oversight Hearing
DC Council Committee on the Judiciary
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, Chairman
April 20, 2016

Good afternoon Chairman McDuffie and members of the Committee on the Judiciary. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY). First, I would like to thank you, Councilmember McDuffie, for your leadership in introducing comprehensive juvenile justice reform legislation. You and your staff have shown brave leadership proposing legislation that will mark the District in one of the nation’s leaders in how we treat young people who are court-involved.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before your Committee today.  Since DCLY was founded 8 years ago, I have testified every year about the population under the Department of Corrections jurisdiction that we are most concerned with—the Title 16 youth. Title 16 youth are those young people who are charged as adults by the U.S. Attorney’s office.  I am here today once again to raise some concerns concerning the conditions of confinement for these young people in the juvenile unit at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). I will also briefly touch on some issues with the expiring CCA contract to run CTF.

Prohibiting the Pre-Trial Detention of Youth in Adult Facilities

Adult facilities are generally ill-equipped to provide the services that youth need for positive development, such as education, exercise, and pro-social interactions with positive role models.[1]   From their physical plant to their staff training, adult facilities are not designed for children. Compared to their peers in juvenile facilities, youth in adult facilities report that the staff members are less supportive in helping them achieve their goals, learn new skills, and improve their personal relationships.[2]  Most importantly, adult facilities also generally provide weaker education services than do juvenile facilities, a critical weakness given the importance of education for adolescents’ future prospects.[3]

The facility in which the District holds youth charged as adults has similar deficiencies.  An independent evaluation done by the Ridley Group of the Juvenile Unit at CTF found that 1) the facility space is too limited to provide adequate programming or sufficient physical activity, 2) most youth are not able to have in-person visitation with their family members, 3) some staff working the unit are inadequately trained to address the needs of youth, and 4) the amount of structured programming offered to youth is inadequate.[4]  These issues reveal the inherent limitations of housing youth in facilities designed for adults. Nonetheless, over the past five years the District has held more than 600 individual youth under age 18 in adult facilities.[5] 

I will say that the DOC staff responsible for running the unit has been trying to address the deficiencies illustrated in the Ridley Report. For the last year and a half or more, I have had a quarterly conference call with the DOC staff responsible for the Title 16 unit. To their credit, they have taken some very positive steps, including 1) allowing for contact visits for more youth, 2) increasing the availability of mental health services, 3) changing the young people’s uniforms and cell décor, and 4) revamping the DOC policy on restrictive housing.

These are all very commendable steps and I applaud the Department for taking them and others. However, the fact remains that adult jails are inappropriate for youth. Incarcerating youth under age 18 in adult facilities places them at higher risk of suicide and victimization, limits their educational and work opportunities, and makes them more likely to commit future crimes. Research also shows that youth are less likely to re-offend and more likely to succeed in school and the workplace if they receive comprehensive services that support positive youth development.[6]  Not all youth who are charged as adults are ultimately convicted which means they will soon return to our communities; therefore, the District has an interest in ensuring that these young people are housed in an environment that supports their development rather than the DC Jail which has been found to be inadequate for that purpose. I again commend you for introducing legislation that addresses this issue.

Councilmembers, we are also concerned about what will happen over the next couple of years after the CCA contract for CTF expires in January 2017. Admittedly, this is not an area of focus for DCLY as we work on predominantly youth-related issues. However, in looking at the budget request and the current numbers of people at the two facilities, CDF and CTF, some items stood out. First, the DOC facilities are significantly underutilized—by our count, as of last Friday DOC was less than half full. Second, I understand that there is a need for funding to manage the transition from CCA to DOC; however, it isn’t immediately clear to me what the need is. I would encourage this Committee to spend some time with the Department around the needs for managing this transition.

Additionally, given that this transition will be happening very soon, I think there is an incredible opportunity for this Committee and the Department to not spend dollars on business as usual and to use money saved by the expiring CCA contract to make meaningful, long-lasting change to corrections in the District. To the extent that there must be additional money for transitioning away from CCA, this money should be a short-term approval for the next fiscal year only.  Further, before the FY2018 budget cycle, this Committee should convene a body of stakeholders, which would include returning citizens, DOC, attorneys, advocates, and other stakeholders to start to look at:

(1)  Right-sizing the DC Jail: what size facility does DC actually need?

(2)  Innovation: In what best practices should the District be investing?

(3)  Re-Investment: to the extent there are savings from underused facilities, how can that money be reinvested in front-end programs or re-entry services?


Councilmember McDuffie, I have heard from numbers of young people who have spent time as teenagers in the DOC facility who felt that the space was inappropriate for them.  Additionally, as I stated earlier in my testimony, an independent evaluation of the conditions of confinement for youth at CTF has shed some light on what young people at the jail experience—from the living conditions, to their education, to their recreation time. I think that it is very telling that the report states "The Unit space is inadequate for the population served. The school is cramped and the unit does not have dedicated programming or recreation space. Juveniles are required to share the gym and outdoor recreation space with the adults. Due to required site and sound separation, the juveniles can only use the space when the adults are not using it."[7] This is not the description of a place where our young people should be housed—especially because these young people are going to come back to the District. We recommend, as always, that this population be housed somewhere else—at a facility more equipped to handle youth and now there is a legislative vehicle to accomplish such a move.  I welcome the opportunity to work further with you, with your staff, and with the affected agencies to move our young people into a facility that will have long lasting benefits for them and for our city. Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today and I am available to answer any questions.

[1] Jailing Juveniles: The Dangers of Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails in America (Campaign for Youth Justice, November 2007),

[2] Jennifer L. Woolard et al., “Juveniles Within Adult Correctional Settings: Legal Pathways and Developmental Considerations,” International Journal of Forensic Mental Health 4, no. 1 (2005): 15.

[3] Jailing Juveniles: The Dangers of Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails in America, 7.

[4] Walter B. Ridley, Francis Mendez, and Ghia Ridley Pearson, The District of Columbia Department of Corrections Correctional Treatment Facility Juvenile Unit Assessment.

[5] FOIA Response Juv 2007 - 2012 (DC Department of Corrections, December 23, 2013).  Provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  On file with DC Lawyers for Youth.

[6] Jeffrey A. Butts, Gordon Bazemore, and Aundra Saa Meroe, Positive Youth Justice: Framing Justice Interventions Using the Concepts of Positive Youth Development (Washington, DC: Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 2010),; Ashley Nellis and Richard Hooks Wayman, Back on Track: Supporting Youth Reentry from Out-of-Home Placement to the Community (Washington, DC: The Youth Reentry Task Force of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, 2009),

[7] Ibid., 9.

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