DYRS Oversight Testimony in Support of Juvenile Justice Reform

Testimony of Eduardo R. Ferrer, Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth

My name is Eduardo Ferrer. I am an attorney with Howrey LLP and the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth, a non-profit organization whose mission it is to improve the District’s juvenile justice system. I am here today to explain why these reforms are necessary in order to create a juvenile justice system that both fosters youth development and improves public safety, to express our support for the reforms currently underway at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and to urge this Committee to continue to support these reform efforts.

As this Committee well knows, DYRS is charged with the incredible challenge of safely reconnecting court-involved youth to the community in a city where a great number of the law-abiding youth feels disconnected or forgotten. This mission involves two very closely-related responsibilities. First, from a youth development perspective, DYRS is tasked with providing court-involved youth the opportunity to become more productive citizens. Second, from a public safety perspective, DYRS is tasked with devising a way to lower the rates at which court-involved youth re-offend. The reforms that DYRS has begun to implement – in particular, the creation of a community-based continuum of care – are essential to effectively fulfilling these twin responsibilities of rehabilitation and recidivism reduction.

I think it is important here to ask two interrelated questions. First, why are these current reform efforts necessary? And, second, why should we expect these reform efforts to be effective?

Reform is necessary because D.C.’s approach to the treatment of court-involved youth under past leadership – an ineffective punitive correctional model that treated youth as small adults – was based, in large part, on false premises. Specifically, this past policy, along with many other aspects of our city’s current juvenile justice system, came chiefly from a tough-on-crime mentality that arose in the 1990’s out of the myth of the imminent emergence of a teen "superpredator," the fear that juvenile crime was on the rise despite all evidence to the contrary, and the high-profile nature of a few exceptional cases of juvenile crime.

And this is exactly what DYRS has begun doing. Since January 2005, DYRS has instituted a number of reforms that restore the focus of the treatment of court-involved youth to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction as opposed to merely punishment. Importantly, these reforms are not novel, untested theories unilaterally imposed by a person or organization with a political agenda. Instead, these reforms are based on the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Juvenile Justice & Public Safety, a working group comprised of a diverse group of community members and stakeholders in the juvenile justice system that spent months researching and deliberating the best practices of other jurisdictions before issuing its suggestions for reform.

I would like to highlight one particular reform effort that is particularly indicative of DYRS’s commitment to research-tested policies for improving rehabilitation and reducing recidivism – the creation of its community-based continuum of care. Prior to 2005, youth stayed an average of just over 60 days at Oak Hill, irrespective of the seriousness of the offense.

Yet the superpredator never materialized, the rate of juvenile violent crime continues to decrease, and the high-profile exceptional cases of juvenile crime remain just that – sensationalized outliers to the norm. As a result, reform is necessary not only to return the focus of D.C.’s approach to the treatment of court-involved youth to rehabilitation, but also to rid the system of the false premises on which it came to be based and instead moor its policies on research, data, and best-practices.  However, under the current reform efforts, youth who are convicted of more serious offenses stay at Oak Hill between nine months and one year. In other words, DYRS is confining youth with serious offenses – those typically most in need of services and most at risk for re-offending – for longer periods of time in order to more effectively work with them. The effect is four-fold. First, it improves D.C.’s short-term public safety by keeping those most likely to re-offend under intense supervision. Second, it improves D.C.’s long-term public safety by improving the recidivism rate of the offenders. Third, it allows DYRS to focus resources on working with the most serious and chronic youthful offenders. And fourth, it saves money because youth who do not pose a serious risk to public safety are now being served in less costly, more effective community-based alternatives to incarceration. This continuum of care approach has not only been proven to work in other jurisdictions, but has been endorsed by a host of research-focused non-profits and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.