Public Hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary On the Performance of the Department of Corrections

Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo
Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Committee on the Judiciary Performance Oversight Hearing for
     the Department of Corrections
Thursday February 13, 2017
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Good afternoon Chairman Allen and Councilmembers.  My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. DCLY is a non-profit action tank focused on using data, research, evidence, and our experience to improve DC’s juvenile justice system.  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 before your Committee today.  Since DCLY was founded, I have testified every year about the population under the Department of Corrections’ jurisdiction that we are most concerned with—the Title 16 youth. Title 16 youth are those young people who are charged as adults by the U.S. Attorney’s office.  I am here today once again to raise some concerns concerning the conditions of confinement for these young people in the juvenile unit at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). In particular, I will address two particular issues of concern: 1) the programming that is available to youth at CTF and 2) the recent transfer of youth under the age of 18 to Bureau of Prison (BOP) facilities before they reach the age of 18.

Programming at Central Treatment Facility 

Adult facilities are generally ill-equipped to provide the services that youth need for positive development, such as education, exercise, and pro-social interactions with positive role models.[1]   From their physical plant to their staff training, adult facilities are not designed for children. Compared to their peers in juvenile facilities, youth in adult facilities report that the staff members are less supportive in helping them achieve their goals, learn new skills, and improve their personal relationships.[2]  Most importantly, adult facilities also generally provide weaker education services than do juvenile facilities, a critical weakness given the importance of education for adolescents’ future prospects.[3]

The facility in which the District holds youth charged as adults has similar deficiencies.  An independent evaluation done by the Ridley Group of the Juvenile Unit at CTF made a number of findings including that, 1) the facility space is too limited to provide adequate programming or sufficient physical activity, 2) some staff working the unit are inadequately trained to address the needs of youth, and 3) the amount of structured programming offered to youth is inadequate.[4]  These issues reveal the inherent limitations of housing youth in facilities designed for adults.

Councilmember Allen, we are extremely troubled by the lack of current programming for youth.  Back in 2013, The Ridley Group made the following recommendation:

“The programming offered at the Juvenile Unit is insufficient and needs to be expanded. The Juvenile Unit was without structured activity for the majority of the weekend; more routine activities are needed. While we recognize that the unit has significantly expanded programming since our observations; our team believes there is still an opportunity to increase programming even further. TRGA recommends developing specialized programs/sessions during the week and on weekends that are responsive to the developmental needs of incarcerated juveniles taking into account the possible roles these issues play in the juvenile’s development. These include but are not limited to vocational programs, educational programs, sex offender and violent offender programs which address and teach conflict resolution, victim awareness, empathy awareness, self-esteem building, decision making and relationship building.”[5]

 In that report, DOC cited 11 programs that were available on the Title 16 unit. However, based on the Department’s responses to this Committee’s questions (found on pages 486-487), only 1 of those programs is still continuing. This is not acceptable. I do know that DOC is looking to expand their programming. For example, they are bringing in a volunteer to work with the young people through chess. However, that does not meet the specific recommendations for programming necessary to meet the developmental needs of this population. I urge this Committee to ask the Department about this issue and how it plans to expand programming for young people. This is extremely important because, as you know, if any of these young people is transferred to BOP, they will get almost no viable programming.

 Transfers of Youth Under 18 to FBOP Facilities

The second issue I want to raise today is the involuntary and sudden transfer of young people out of CTF and into BOP facilities prior to their 18th birthday. As you know, once a young person at CTF turns 18, they are automatically transferred to a BOP facility. That facility can be across the sidewalk or across the country, which is a consequence of the District’s quasi-federal criminal justice system. However, for many years, that transfer would not happen until a young person actually turned 18. It appears that this practice has changed.

Since September, we have gotten reports of youth as young as 16 being suddenly transferred out of DC and being sent to facilities in Virginia and as far away as South Dakota and Texas.  Since this past fall, there have been at least 9 of these transfers.

This policy is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it is not clear why these transfers are happening. DOC says that the transfer decision is made by either BOP or by the U.S. Marshals on the basis of behavior issues, however, advocates and attorneys have not been able to get a clear explanation from DOC on what constitutes behavior that is grounds for being yanked out of DC and sent halfway across the country. Second, it has also been difficult to get answers from either the U.S. Marshals and BOP as to why this change in policy after years of keeping young people in D.C. I urge the Council to ask the Department about this issue and get some concrete explanations as to why youth are now being sent away from the District.

Conclusion

I will say that the DOC staff responsible for running the unit has been communicative with the advocacy community and I appreciate that. I also know that they have made some positive steps including allowing more contact visits. However, this population has some very specific needs that are not currently being met.  I urge this Committee to inquire as to how the Department intends to meet those needs and how it will address the issues I’ve raised here today.



[1] Jailing Juveniles: The Dangers of Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails in America (Campaign for Youth Justice, November 2007), http://www.campaignforyouthjustice.org/documents/CFYJNR_JailingJuveniles.pdf.

[2] Jennifer L. Woolard et al., “Juveniles Within Adult Correctional Settings: Legal Pathways and Developmental Considerations,” International Journal of Forensic Mental Health 4, no. 1 (2005): 15.

[3] Jailing Juveniles: The Dangers of Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails in America, 7.

[4] Walter B. Ridley, Francis Mendez, and Ghia Ridley Pearson, The District of Columbia Department of Corrections Correctional Treatment Facility Juvenile Unit Assessment.

[5] Id. at 11.


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