Committee on Human Services, DYRS Oversight Hearing

Testimony of Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth

Good morning Chairman Graham, thank you for the opportunity to give testimony before the Committee on Human Services. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth as well as a Ward 1 resident. In our last appearance before your Committee, we related from DCLY’s perspective, where the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) has been successful; where we believe the agency can be strengthened in order to further improve its services to our young people; and finally to offer some suggestions to the Committee on where it might concentrate its oversight efforts. Today, however, I would like to express our support for the Lead Entities Services Coalition (LESC) Initiative and community-based services for youth, discuss how the District can more effectively invest in the juvenile justice system to insure better fiscal and programmatic outcomes, and address the need for stable leadership at DYRS.

Lead Entities Services Coalitions and Community-Based Care

We fully support the LESC Initiative. Data and research shows that treating young people in the least restrictive setting consistent with public safety reduces recidivism, allows young people to successfully re-integrate into their communities, and ultimately makes our communities safer while saving the District money. It must be stated that this model has only been in place for less than 18 months. I believe that in that short time, while there is definitely room for improvement, this model has had some successes and should have the full support of this Committee and the resources to fully implement the model.

First, it is essential to public safety and to juvenile justice reform that DYRS, the Lead Entities, and service providers commit to more effective monitoring of outcomes. Part of that requires that DYRS have objective and uniform standards which are known and followed by all stakeholders in the LESC Initiative. This is one area that the current leadership at DYRS should focus on in order to insure that all stakeholders in the Lead Entities Initiative understand what is expected of them.

The Lead Entities and the community-based service providers serve the majority of youth committed to DYRS. The perception of how well the Lead Entities and community-based service providers are performing is essentially how the performance of the District’s juvenile justice system will be judged. Therefore, it is critical that DYRS focus on creating a comprehensive and effective spectrum of community-based services.

In addition, DYRS and the Lead Entities need to improve the process of referral and accountability. Two suggestions of how DYRS can accomplish this are 1) allowing the Lead Entities and their service providers earlier and/or more access to youth held in secure detention; 2) re-instating the monthly meetings that consisted of senior-level staff at DYRS, the Lead Entities, and the Trust and include a representative of the service provider community; and 3) creating and memorializing clear lines of responsibility among DYRS, the Lead Entities, and the service providers.

While there are certainly areas in which this model can be further built up and strengthened, this Committee and the Council should know that this model of community-based supervision of young people committed to the juvenile justice system is evidence based and the best way to successfully rehabilitate our young people. Further, is it also the most effective system from an programmatic and fiscal standpoint.

Fiscal and Budgetary Considerations

Given current budget climate, it is critical that the District invest its resources where it will see the most return. It is our belief that investment in the prevention end of the juvenile justice spectrum will result in better outcomes for young people and better fiscal and safety outcomes for the District. To that end, it is much more fiscally responsible to invest in youth development before youth are committed to DYRS or even become court-involved.

Chairman Graham, I know that you are interested in substance abuse and treatment and its place in juvenile justice. How the District treats substance abuse issues is an example of how the District should examine its strategy on where to place its resources. Treating substance abuse on the back end through the juvenile justice system or other intense treatment areas is more expensive and less effective than investing in substance abuse prevention on the front end. Similarly, investing in community-based care and building the capacity of our communities to engage our young people will yield similar results. That is, instead of spending large amounts of money on residential treatment centers and secure facilities, we should be investing in community-based service providers and front-end services which are less costly and ultimately result in better outcomes.

Stable Leadership at DYRS

DYRS has gone without stable leadership for far too long and the performance of the agency has suffered as a result. For example, the Lead Entities Service Coalition Initiative is just over 16 months old. However, DYRS has not had permanent director in 13 months. This turnover and uncertainty has hindered DYRS’ ability to work with the two Lead Entities to create a streamlined, effective process for referring youth to the Lead Entities and to build a robust, sustainable coalition of service providers. As such, I urge this Committee to work with Mayor Gray to swiftly nominate and appoint Neil Stanley, DYRS’ current interim director and former General Counsel, as the permanent director for the agency. Mr. Stanley will provide the much-needed stability, focus on process, and commitment to public safety, and depth of knowledge of DYRS and DC youth necessary to continue to improve the agency.

Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to testify today and I am available to answer any questions you may have for me.