Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo, Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Good morning Chairman Graham and again, thank you for the opportunity to testify before the Committee on Human Services at this Public Roundtable on the confirmation of Neil Stanley for the Director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth and a resident of Ward 1. I am here today to convey DCLY’s support for the confirmation of Neil Stanley as the Director of DYRS and to urge yourself and the Committee on Human Services to confirm the Mayor’s appointee, Neil Stanley.
It is important that DYRS have stable, supported, and competent leadership if we are to continue improving the DC juvenile justice system, make our city safer, and finally put to rest the Jerry M. litigation that hangs over the system and limits the potential of our city’s youth justice system. In the last 18 months, DYRS has had four different directors. Since Vincent Schiraldi left in January 2010, the Agency has not had a permanent director. Therefore, leadership at the agency has been in flux and no clear direction has been communicated to the full complement of DYRS staff. Confirming Neil Stanley as the permanent Director will signal to the Agency, its staff, and our city that the leadership of this city—the Mayor and the Council are ready to work together to stabilize our city’s juvenile justice agency.
In our opinion, for a DYRS Director to successfully lead the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the Director must have the following qualities. First, it is crucial that the next Director have a deep understanding of DYRS and the District’s juvenile justice system, be knowledgeable of the history of juvenile justice reform in the District, and have a working knowledge of our city and its political, legislative, and judicial landscape. Second, the District must have proven management skills and the ability to assemble and lead a knowledgeable and effective management team. Third, the Director of DYRS should understand that he plays a critical role in engaging the various stakeholders in our youth justice system — the judiciary, law enforcement, agency staff, service providers, and community leaders — toward a common vision of public safety through positive youth development and rehabilitation.
Neil Stanley meets all of the key criteria this city needs in a Director of its juvenile justice agency. As a former assistant attorney general with the Office of the Attorney General, a program officer at one of the leading criminal justice foundations in the country, and as a General Counsel who has been helping DYRS overcome challenges since 2008, Neil Stanley possesses a wealth of knowledge about juvenile justice policy, intimately knows the Department’s strengths and challenges, and understands the importance of various important stakeholders in the District’s youth justice policy formation process. Further, as a former interim director at the Department of Parks and Recreation and in his current capacity as the same at DYRS, Neil has the managerial experience at the District level necessary to be a successful Director.
Additionally, Neil Stanley has demonstrated, as Interim Director that he has the ability to recruit and retain a management team who can advance the goals of the Department and focuses on the everyday processes engaged in by the agency. For example, as a result of his leadership, the efforts of his management team, and their improvements in the referral processes, DYRS has been able to significantly reduce the awaiting placement population that had ballooned under his predecessor.
Lastly, it is our understanding that Mr. Stanley has collaborated well during his interim term with a variety of stakeholders in the juvenile justice system. I will give you an example of his willingness to listen to stakeholders. Chairman Graham, you have indicated that the performance and the effectiveness of the Lead Entities is a priority for you. Likewise, DCLY understands that for juvenile justice reform to be successful, the Lead Entities must perform at their optimal level. To help strengthen this initiative, DCLY met with both Lead Entities in an effort to understand what, if any, supports they needed from DYRS to fulfill the vision of the initiative. Following these meetings in which we listened to the concerns of both PLC and ERCPCP, we contacted Interim Director Stanley and requested a meeting with him to discuss what we learned. Mr. Stanley could not have been more responsive. He met with us almost immediately. He and his executive team heard the concerns that we conveyed to him and has continued to be responsive to multiple other requests from advocates to talk about issues with the Agency and juvenile justice in the District. Mr. Chairman, juvenile justice is not only what happens when a young person comes into contact with the court. Advocates and service providers, not only those who are court ordered to provide services, play a significant role in ensuring that our young people stay out of the system and if they do get involved, that they leave better than they came in. Mr. Stanley understands this role that advocates and service providers play in our system and can be a uniting figure that builds consensus around a common plan for further reforming our juvenile justice system, improving youth outcomes, making our communities safer, and saving the District money.
Chairman Graham, the District deserves and requires a stable, well-run, and competently led juvenile justice agency. In the recent past, DYRS has had a series of interim directors that left the agency and the District wondering what kind of juvenile justice agency our city’s leaders believe we should have. Now is the time for you to lead and to signal that a juvenile justice system that values rehabilitation, robust community-service provision model, fiscal responsibility, and public safety is the kind of system the people of the District deserve. Mr. Chairman, confirming the Mayor’s appointee, Neil Stanley sends that message and we ask that you confirm Neil Stanley as Director of DYRS.