Department of Corrections Performance Oversight Hearing 2015

Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director

DC Council Committee on the Judiciary
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, Chairman
February 19, 2015

Good afternoon Chairman McDuffie. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY). DCLY is an organization whose mission is to advocate for continued positive youth justice reform in the District. Together with our allies who include juvenile justice advocates, defense attorneys, post-adjudication counsel, education attorneys and community-based service providers we are working to make the District’s juvenile justice system the smallest and best system. By the “smallest” I mean that the system should be reserved for only those young people for whom it is absolutely necessary and the “best” means that we want our young people to touch the system once and that is it—that they will have positive outcomes after coming into contact with the system.

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).

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 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 541 individual youth under age 18 in adult facilities.[5] 

Research 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]  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. 

DCLY along with a number of other organizations including the Campaign for Youth Justice, Public Defender Service, and Free Minds Book Club and Reading Workshop worked with the previous leadership of this committee to introduce a bill that would address these issues I just mentioned as well as a few others affecting this population. The Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act in part addresses these issues by prohibiting the pretrial detention of young people charged as adults, or Title 16 youth, in adult facilities.  Practically, this would mean that pretrial Title 16 youth would be held at the Youth Services Center, which is operated by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Councilmember, we believe, and are backed by the research, that ALL youth under 18 should be housed in a juvenile justice system facility and in the District, that facility is YSC.

Housing pretrial Title 16 youth at YSC would allow them to receive the age-appropriate treatment they cannot receive in the adult jail.  They would interact with staff trained in youth development rather than corrections officers. They would have more frequent access to medical care and mental health treatment. They would live in a space built for kids rather than one built for adults. 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.

Additionally, I would encourage you to go and visit the Title 16 unit at CTF. While I know that the Department of Corrections has made some changes in the past few years, the last independent evaluation conducted of this unit revealed that there were some serious limitations to the ability of this DOC facility to properly meet the needs of the teenagers housed there. I know that Director Faust and his staff have always been helpful when Councilmembers have expressed an interest in visiting CTF and I have no doubt they will continue to do so.

Other Programmatic Concerns at CTF

In past years, we have asked for expanded structured programming, reentry planning, and youth-centered staff training.  The Ridley Group also noted deficiencies in these areas, saying that “the programming offered at the juvenile unit is insufficient and needs to be expanded,”[7] that “evidence-based reentry programming [should begin] as early as possible for juveniles from the moment they are admitted,”[8] and that “the unit has to rely on relief staff that normally work with adults.”[9]  The report indicates that DOC intended to take steps to expand programming and improve reentry planning in the last quarter of 2013.[10]  We hope that this Committee will ask DOC about its progress on those initiatives.  Also, the report indicates that some DOC staff received training on youth-specific topics from DYRS trainers.[11]  This is a positive step, but DOC continues to use a single hiring job description for correctional officers that will work with both youth and adults, and staff still reported that they needed more youth-focused training.[12]   In addition to this staffing challenge, the Ridley Group’s report also notes that there is a single reentry coordinator for youth and adults[13] and that there is no process to address youth-specific mental health needs.[14]  All of these facts highlight the fundamental challenge of housing a small group of youth with a large population of adults—that challenge is that the staffing and culture of the facility tend to remain adult-centered and insufficiently address the unique needs of youth.

Conclusion

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."[15] 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 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), http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/documents/CFYJNR_JailingJuveniles.pdf.

[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), http://johnjayresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/pyj2010.pdf; 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), http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/CC_youthreentryfall09report.pdf.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] Ibid., 49–50.

[11] Ibid., 15.

[12] Ibid., 44–45.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Ibid., 25.

[15] Ibid., 9.


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