Testimony of Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director
Good morning Chairman McDuffie, and members of the Committee on Judiciary. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. DCLY is an organization whose mission is to advocate for continued positive youth justice reform in the District, which we define as making the District’s juvenile justice system the smallest and the best system. The smallest juvenile justice system is one that serves only those youth that are a threat to public safety and who require rehabilitation and support services. The best juvenile justice system is one that addresses young people’s individual needs and releases that young people from its care ready to achieve positive life outcomes.
DYRS has an awesome and important responsibility to help our District’s committed youth become successful adults and citizens. I would like to compliment the DYRS Director and his Executive Staff. Since his appointment, Director Lacey has been both accessible and willing to meet regularly with advocates, direct service providers, and attorneys. This type of transparency and open communication between the agency and those working with young people is essential to making the District’s juvenile justice system the best it can be. DCLY also commends DYRS on the work they are doing in the community, such as focusing on family engagement as well as commencing the Credible Messenger program. These initiatives are excellent examples of the types of support our committed youth need when they are in the community. Research shows that supervising youth in the community can reduce the risk of recidivism and improve life outcomes for young people. Therefore, my testimony today will simply focus on 1) the need for funding DYRS at a level that will allow the agency to provide high-quality, individualized, community-based services for committed youth and 2) the need for investment and potentially, reinvestment of District dollars in front end services that prevent entry into the juvenile justice system, for example, the Alternatives to the Court Experience or ACE program.
I know that during the budget process many agencies experience budget cuts and from this year’s submitted budget it appears that DYRS is no different. If that is to occur, however, any budget cuts at DYRS should come from the line items for Residential Services, specifically those for the secure detention facilities. Youth who receive community-based services have been shown to achieve better outcomes and have less future involvement with the juvenile justice system. Therefore, these are not the service areas that should suffer should there be budget cuts and it is troubling that the budget request indicates a half-million dollar reduction in community-based programs. We would like to hear more from the Agency on this matter.
Additionally, the money taken from the DYRS budget should be reinvested in front end services such as the Alternatives to the Court Experience program. The idea behind this recommendation is that we should focus on diversion and those services and supports that keep youth out of the system to in the first place. The reinvestment of money cut from the DYRS budget would allow our city’s diversion programs, such as ACE to expand the numbers of youth they are able to serve and ultimately prevent from further entry into the system.
It is a fact, that the number of youth currently committed to DYRS is significantly lower than it has been in previous years. It appears that the Agency has accounted for these lower numbers by reducing the budget request for Residential Services. This is a positive development if 1) the agency will spend less money to send young people to residential treatment centers outside of the District and 2) if those dollars will be reinvested in front end services for young people.
The lower numbers of youth committed to DYRS is also an opportunity to reimagine how we use the District’s secure detention facilities and how community-based services are delivered. Fewer committed youth means that the Agency should be able to improve its delivery of high quality, individualized, robust and consistent services to youth in the community. DYRS needs to have the budget to accomplish this important part of their mission. Fewer youth at New Beginnings also is an opportunity to reimagine how to use this facility to benefit all justice-system involved youth, including youth who are charged as adults and currently held at the DC Jail.
Historically, in the District, the human service agencies have been agencies away from which dollars have been taken during the annual budgeting process. I urge the Council not to allow that to happen this year. Currently, as you know, the number of youth committed to DYRS is currently at a significant low. The fact that DYRS has less committed youth in its care should not automatically mean its budget should be reduced. The agency’s recidivism rate is dropping, which I believe shows that DYRS appears to be good value for money. Therefore, now is not a time to further reduce their budget, nor should DYRS be the agency whose budget cuts fund other agencies, unless those dollars are used to deliver front end, preventive services and supports for young people.
DCLY is grateful to have had many recent discussions with Director Lacey and his staff, and we commend DYRS on its youth- and family-centered advocacy. We hope to support DYRS in its endeavors to ensure compliance through intervention, prevention and community-supports, rather than through the institutionalization of low- and medium-risk level committed youth. Again, with the notably low number of committed youth, our District has the opportunity to implement DCLY’s recommendations and improve the lives and outcomes of committed youths and their families in a community-based setting.
 E. P. Mulvey and C. A. Schubert, Smarter Use of Placement Can Improve Outcomes for Youth and Communities (MacArthur Foundation, 2014), 3, http://www.pathwaysstudy.pitt.edu/documents/MacArthur%20Brief%20Smarter%20Use%20of%20Placement.pdf.