Public Hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary On Performance of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services

Testimony of Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director

Thursday, February 19, 2015, 10:00 am
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Good afternoon 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. 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 today at the performance oversight hearing for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). 

DC’s juvenile justice system has made great progress in the past decade, including the closing of the troubled Oak Hill Youth Center, its replacement with the smaller and more therapeutic New Beginnings Youth Development Center, and the expansion of community-based services through DC YouthLink.[1]  The work that DYRS does in providing services to committed youth is crucial for helping kids get back on track to becoming successful adults.  In order to continue this progress, DYRS needs to become more transparent for parents and advocates, and to make aggressive new improvements in community-based services.

In my testimony today, I will provide a number of recommendations that I hope the Agency will adopt.  I want to stress that DCLY believes in this Agency, we believe that it provides a necessary service to our young people and community, and we are committed to working with DYRS and other system stakeholders to insure that our young people’s lives are changed for the better if they are under DYRS supervision.


1. Publish all written DYRS policies and procedures, especially those governing placement and structured decision-making.

Having written policies and making them available to youth, families, and their advocates facilitates quality-assurance and promotes fidelity to research-based service models. The Council of State Governments Justice Center similarly advises that in order to produce the best public safety and youth development outcomes, juvenile justice systems should have written policies that guide the use of assessments and structured decision-making tools,[2] service delivery,[3] and community supervision.[4]

In recent years, DYRS has not provided written policies regarding these critical activities, limiting the ability of youth and families navigating the system, and those who represent them, to effectively advocate for appropriate treatment. In a similar vein, the lack of written policies has limited the ability of DYRS leadership to ensure line staff is delivering effective services. In 2015, DYRS should create written policies that address the following:

  • The Child And Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale: its administration, interpretation, and appropriate usage.
  • Placement decisions: how strength, risk, and needs assessment are used to determine placement; the role of family and youth involvement; who makes the ultimate decisions; what is left to consensus at Team Decision making meetings; the appeals process.
  • Educational services: how educational strengths and needs are considered in placement decisions.
  • The New Beginnings Model Program: its eligibility requirements, proper administration, and standards for release.

All policies should be grounded in the Positive Youth Justice model.[5] These policies should be made available online. They should also be provided to committed youth, their family members, the defense bar, and the Office of the Attorney General in the form of a manual that outlines each participant’s rights and responsibilities.

2. Improve DC YouthLink’s capability to reliably provide high-quality, individualized services to youth placed in the community.

Research clearly shows that more youth can be safely placed in the community than most jurisdictions do today.[6] However, the services provided in the community should be effective interventions that meet the unique needs of the youth.[7] Despite these facts, DYRS expends 59% of its budget on services for youth in residential placements and just 13% on “youth and family empowerment,”[8] a category that includes DC YouthLink, electronic monitoring, and family engagement activities.[9]

3. Eliminate the use of Residential Treatment Centers and New Beginnings for low- and medium-risk youth, and replace them with non-secure community-based alternatives.

Research shows that institutionalizing youth in secure facilities can actually increase the risk of recidivism, especially for youth who are initially assessed to have a lower risk of reoffending.[10]

DYRS has embraced this research by making part of its mission to hold youth “in the least restrictive, most homelike environment consistent with public safety.”[11] Unfortunately, a few recent practices of the Department have worked counter to this goal, namely placing some medium-risk youth at New Beginnings and placing some low- and medium-risk youth in distant Residential Treatment Centers. Advocates serving committed youth report that some non-high-risk youth have placed in these facilities, in apparent contravention of DYRS’s intent that New Beginnings serve “young people involved with the most serious and chronic offenses” and that RTCs serve “youth with specific mental health, behavioral, or substance abuse needs.”[12]

Consistent with recent research[13] and best practices,[14] DYRS should continue reducing its use of secure confinement, in particular by bringing youth home from out-of-state RTCs and using secure placements only for high-risk youth that need them for public safety reasons.

4. Improve group homes by encouraging them to adopt a level system, monitoring them for indicators that they deliberately push out challenging kids, and conducting unannounced site visits.

Community-based residential facilities, or “group homes,” occupy an importance niche in the DYRS continuum of placement options, as they serve the many youth who do not need secure detention, but who DYRS staff does not feel comfortable allowing to remain with a parent. Accountability and quality control for these facilities is essential, given that they are not staffed directly by DYRS employees, and are responsible for the safety, supervision, and rehabilitation of the youth in their care.

To improve the quality of group homes, DYRS should encourage them to adopt a level system similar to that used at New Beginnings, in which youth progress through a structured series of activities in order to demonstrate readiness for release from the facility.[15]

Group homes should also not be permitted to push out the most challenging youth and DYRS should monitor the re-arrest rates of each group home and investigate facilities with high re-arrest rates to insure that those facilities don’t have an “adult” problem rather than a youth problem.

5. Create a formal transition planning process for youth who are approaching the end of their commitments.

A formal transition planning process is necessary to ensure optimal life outcomes for youth exiting DYRS supervision. Research shows that youth leaving institutional settings who receive transition plans have lower recidivism rates.[16] Such plans should be developed starting as soon as a youth is placed out of the home, provide reentry services in the community that the youth will be returning to, proactively address developmental deficits, promote permanency and stable housing, facilitate access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, recognize the diverse needs of returning youth, structure participation in educational and work activities, and provide pro-social leisure activities.[17] DYRS currently only has a written transition planning process for youth with serious behavioral health needs.[18]

A process applicable to all youth should be set out in writing. The process should include production of written transition plan tailored to the youth’s individual strengths and needs. The plan should specify which agencies or individuals are responsible for implementing each of its elements. Young people should not continue to participate in DYRS programming after their commitment has expired. DYRS should explore CFSA’s transition planning process for youth aging out of care as a potential example.[19]

6. Reinstate respite care options for overnight youth.

Currently, any youth who is arrested too late in the day to have an initial hearing during that same day, and who the Family Court Social Services Division determines should not be released to a family member overnight, is held at the Youth Services Center, a secure facility.[20] In the past, respite care options were available for youth not in need of secure overnight detention.[21] DYRS should make such options available again to avoid unnecessarily exposing any youth to the environment of a secure facility.  Respite care options would also contribute to more bed space at YSC—that bed space could be put to other uses such as housing Title 16 youth.

7. Establish a mechanism to consistently share data with the public.

DYRS asserts that it collects numerous outcomes and measures to evaluate the agency’s performance.[22] However, this data is only infrequently and incompletely shared with the public. This makes it very difficult to for researchers, advocates, journalists, and the public at large to independently verify the agency’s success. Information like the size of DYRS sub-populations, re-arrest and re-conviction rates, and positive youth development indicators would be exceptionally useful to identify successful DYRS initiatives, gaps in programming, funding needs, and trends in the agency’s activities. Providing this information would be consistent with Mayor Bowser’s stated intention to make the District’s government “one of the most open and transparent systems.[23]

We recommend that a robust set of data be published online on a monthly basis, including the positive youth justice outcomes and measures listed in the 2014 Agency Progress Report, the number of committed youth, the number of detained youth, the number of youth in each type of placement, and a breakdown of what offenses youth are committed and initially placed for. In addition, we recommend that DYRS publish an annual report more easily digested by members of the general public.


Councilmember McDuffie, the number of youth committed to DYRS is significantly lower than it has been in recent year and therefore DYRS is well positioned to implement the recommendations I have made here today

Finally, I would like to remind this committee that DYRS is the smaller segment of the District’s juvenile justice system. There are fewer than 400 youth committed to DYRS while Court Social Services, the youth probation arm of DC Superior Court supervises over 1000 young people. This is an agency over which this committee has no oversight. This is a agency over which the District has no authority. I would encourage you Councilmember to reach out to DC Superior Court, which I know you have shown a willingness to do, and ask them to discuss with you their performance in supervising the majority of the District youth in the juvenile justice system. The city and our young people would benefit from that outreach.

[1] Liz Ryan and Marc Schindler, Notorious to Notable: The Crucial Role of the Philanthropic Community in Transforming the Juvenile Justice in Washington, D.C., 2011,

[2] Elizabeth Seigle, Nastassia Walsh, and Josh Weber, Core Principles for Reducing Recidivism and Improving Other Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System (New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2014), 50,

[3] Ibid., 56.

[4] Ibid., 72.

[5] See 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),; “Positive Youth Justice,” Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services Website, accessed March 14, 2014,

[6] Amanda Petteruti, Nastassia Walsh, and Tracy Velázquez, The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense (Justice Policy Institute, May 2009),

[7] Mark W. Lipsey et al., Improving the Effectiveness of Juvenile Justice Programs (Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Georgetown University, December 2010), 51,

[8] “DYRS Budget By Program/Activity,” CFOInfo, accessed January 30, 2015,

[9] Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services 2015 Proposed Budget Chapter (Office of the Chief Financial Officer, August 7, 2014), E–153,

[10] See, e.g., Richard A. Mendel, No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2011), 12,; Barry Holman and Jason Ziedenberg, The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities (Justice Policy Institute, n.d.), 4–7,; E. P. Mulvey and C. A. Schubert, Smarter Use of Placement Can Improve Outcomes for Youth and Communities (MacArthur Foundation, 2014), 3,

[11] “Mission and Vision,” accessed February 2, 2015,

[12] “Secure Facilities,” accessed February 2, 2015,

[13] Tony Fabelo et al., Closer to Home: An Analysis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juvenile Justice Reforms (The Council of State Governments Justice Center, January 2015),

[14] Policy Platform: Reducing Youth Confinement (National Juvenile Justice Network, August 2014),

[15] See Reagan Daly, Tarika Kapur, and Margaret Elliott, Capital Change: A Process  Evaluation of Washington, DC’s  Secure Juvenile Placement Reform (Vera Institute of Justice, January 2011), 14,

[16] “Why Is Transition Planning and Implementation so Important in Juvenile Justice?,” Technical Assistance Partnership for Child and Family Mental Health Archive, n.d.,

[17] 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), 37–40,

[18] See DYRS-016: Community Transition Planning and Services (Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, September 19, 2013),

[19] See Older Youth Services (Child and Family Services Agency, April 29, 2014),

[20] DC Juvenile Justice System at a Glance (Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, n.d.),

[21] See 2011 Annual Performance Report (Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, March 2012), 43,

[22] Agency Progress Report 2014 (Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, December 2014), 27–29,

[23] Bowser Administration Transition Plan (The Transition Team of Mayor-Elect Bowser, November 2014), 48–49,

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