DC Council Testimony in Support of Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services

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

Thank you Mr. Chairman for the opportunity to again testify before this Committee. I appear before this committee on the behalf of DC Lawyers for Youth. I have testified before this Committee on numerous occasions since DCLY’s founding three years ago. I have consistently expressed support for the bold and forward looking reforms undertaken by DYRS in the last 5 years. In supporting these measures, I also recognize that there is still work to be done. DYRS and this Committee must work to continue the trajectory of reform as well as work to strengthen the oversight over service providers and community partners to insure that the reforms are not derailed by failing confidence in community-based services.

Mr. Chairman, you are well aware of the path of reform DYRS has taken since taking over YSA. Today, however, I want to talk about the path I and many of the advocates in the District and around the country believe DYRS should take in continuing juvenile justice system reform in D.C.

First, the leadership at DYRS, the Mayor’s office, and this Committee must continue to engage with the service provider and advocacy community. I know that the Interim Director has met with various advocates and service providers and I would encourage him to continue to do so. The District’s model of community-based services necessitates that the leadership at DYRS maintain an open line of communication with the service providers and the advocate community. Further, the Interim Director and this Committee should invite parents, families, and youth to share their experiences in the juvenile justice system and take those experiences into account in making decisions on policy matters.

Second, DYRS (and for that matter Court Social Services) should openly share data on programming, outcomes, and recidivism. Recognizing, as you have Mr. Chairman, that public and political support for the reforms is important accurate data on recidivism and decision-making should necessarily be made available. It is important that recidivism data be accurately reported and that data must accurately reflect actual behavior of youth. To that end, I believe that including re-arrests in calculating recidivism rates is misleading to this committee and the public. Arrest data points to adult behavior, not youth behavior. Including the fact that a young person is merely arrested in recidivism calculations assumes that a re-arrest is evidence of re-offending. It also wrongly infringes on the presumption of innocence. Further, service providers and DYRS must share accurate outcome data. It does a disservice to our youth and our community if programs that aren’t fulfilling their duties are allowed to continue to operate.

Third, this Committee must continue to recognize that the juvenile justice system is not solely DYRS. We must take a holistic approach to oversight of the juvenile justice system in D.C. If we continue to scrutinize only DYRS, the system is overlooking the rehabilitation of over 2,000 youth in our city. We know anecdotally that judges are releasing youth to CSS supervision 4-5 times before committing them to DYRS. What does that say about the effectiveness of CSS? We cannot rely solely on DYRS to rehabilitate our youth. Any sincere, credible, and evidence-based examination of the District’s juvenile justice system must take into account the young people under CSS supervision not only those committed to DYRS.

Mr. Chairman, you have said that without popular support, the reforms are going to fail. I believe that engaging service providers and advocates in policy considerations, sharing accurate data, and undertaking a holistic examination of the juvenile justice system are all necessary to garner that support for reform. That being said, however, the evidence, research, and results are clear that a rehabilitative system that provides community-based, evidence-based programming results in positive outcomes for committed youth and results in safer communities. I encourage the Council to continue to hold DYRS to the high standard of providing rehabilitative care rather than allowing the Agency to fall back on “get tough” policies which have been proven to be ineffective at treating juvenile offenders.

Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to testify today.