Hearing on "Beyond 100 Homicides: Violent Crime In The District of Columbia"

Testimony Of R. Daniel Okonkwo
Executive Director, DC Lawyers For Youth
Hearing on "Beyond 100 Homicides: Violent Crime
In The District of Columbia"
September 16, 2015


Good evening Chairman McDuffie and Councilmembers.  My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. DCLY is an organization whose mission is to advocate for continued positive youth justice reform in the District. 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.

DCLY is an organization focused on youth justice advocacy and while young people have not been a focus of the recent increase in violent crimes, we believe that preventive solutions to crime must include initiatives that engage and empower young people.  Additionally, we believe that a public health, multi-tiered response to crime works for young people, young adults, and adults. Today I will talk about our city’s approach to youth violence, offer some alternative solutions to police and prosecution-focused initiatives, and briefly address the recent mayoral proposal that focuses on criminal justice issues.

A Public Health Approach to Addressing Youth Violence

We are here today because the District is experiencing an increase in certain violent crimes.  Councilmember McDuffie, violence is a public health issue.   In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recently identified violence as one of the most significant public health issues facing young people in this country. In the past, anecdotes and media coverage often make it seem that youth crime in particular is on the rise. The hard data, however, tells another story. While we do not wish to minimize the effect that the recent violence has had on our communities, long-term trends show that crime is not actually on the rise and therefore, we must be cautious in how we react. DCLY will be releasing a report that shows, among other things, that total youth arrests are at their lowest point in the past 10 years and that youth arrests and petitions have decreased over 25% since 2009.  With this in mind, we must decline to pursue strategies that have proven to be, not only unsuccessful, but also detrimental to the cause of curbing youth violence. The District’s response must be a multi-tiered, public health-based one. We recommend three policy responses that will combat violence in a way that both increases public safety and addresses the needs of our communities.

First, The District should employ a public health approach to dealing with youth violence. This means investing in evidenced-based, front-end programs that address the underlying factors that contribute to youth violence. By tackling both widespread community needs and the immediate needs of youth at-risk of delinquency, we will see positive outcomes for our youth and for our communities.

Second, Our responses to juvenile justice should be data-driven and research-informed. To that end, we need to become more sophisticated in the manner in which we collect and analyze data. The primary agencies responsible for processing youth through the DC juvenile justice system should create and maintain a unified, multi-agency dataset that allows for improved analysis of youth justice trends.

Third, The juvenile justice system should focus its efforts primarily on violent and serious weapons offenses. Most other issues can and should be dealt with in the school, behavioral health, and family support systems.           

Multi-Tiered, Public Health Responses

Policing and prosecution have an important role to play in a public health approach to violence reduction, especially to the extent it primarily targets violent and serious weapons offenses.  However, we need a stronger, coordinated, data-driven, and research-based approach to violence that prioritizes prevention and intervention rather than policing and prosecution.

The CDC recommends that communities combat youth violence via a multi-tiered approach, defined as an “implementation of a combination of strategies [that seek to enhance the strengths within individuals, families, communities, and society] is likely to result in stronger and more sustainable improvements in health and safety than the implementation of a single strategy.”[1] 

The District should implement both broad, community-wide strategies at all stages of a child’s life, while implementing targeted case-by-case interventions for families and youth in crisis. For example, programs should intervene starting from prior to birth all the way through early adulthood. For example, a multi-tiered approach may look like the following: To support pregnant mothers and infants, the District could expand its Home Visiting program and pilot Nurse-Family Partnership, a program specifically evaluated and found to be effective at reducing crime.[2] Nurse-Family Partnership improves prenatal and child-rearing practices through a child’s second birthday.[3] To support families with young children, ages 0-12, the District could launch the Triple P System, a parenting program to reduce risk factors for child maltreatment and the subsequent child behavioral and emotional problems that follow.[4] To support the healthy emotional development of young children, the District should explore implementing both the Good Behavior Game as a universal intervention[5] and the Incredible Years Child Treatment program as a more targeted intervention.[6] For middle school and high school aged youth, the District could pilot the BAM-Sports Edition program, an evidence-based program used in Chicago,[7] as well as piloting an evidence-based trauma-informed program for girls, as trauma is the lead cause for girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.[8] Simultaneously, the District should expand and improve the quality of its targeted Multi-Systemic Therapy and Family Functional Therapy offered by Core Services Agencies for identified families in crisis.[9]  By rolling out a comprehensive plan that addresses crime prevention both for the future as well as triaging the potential for violence in youth currently in middle school and high school, the plan would reduce the violence youth experience in their childhood at the hands of adults, address current factors leading to youth violence, and prevent violence against youth in the future.

Mayor Bowser’s Safer, Stronger DC Proposal

Councilmember, I would also like to comment briefly on the Mayors recent Safer, Stronger DC proposals.  Generally, the District should avoid reactionary, punitive responses, which can make communities less safe and contribute to harmful interactions between police and the community.

From DCLY’s perspective, parts of the Mayor’s proposals contain initiatives that are laudable.  However, as I stated earlier, a successful approach to fighting violence will require long-term solutions that are not skewed heavily toward policing, prosecution, and incarceration. How the District spends its money communicates to all of us what the city believes is most important. For years those of us who have been working in the community or on justice issues have been saying that there needs to be meaningful, long-term investment in our communities, its young people, the jobless, the homeless, and its returning citizens. Responding to current events primarily with an increase in policing, prosecution, detention, and incarceration is shortsighted and ineffective, especially when it comes to youth and young adults in the prime of their development. I hope that the Council will ensure that any legislation that is passed is not weighted toward law enforcement solutions that unfairly target young people, returning citizens, and those under court supervision. Instead, this Council should approach violence as a public health issue and meaningfully invest in a coordinated strategy to proactively address issue such as lack of opportunities, under-resourced neighborhoods, and childhood trauma, which are the root causes of violence in our communities.

[1] CDC, supra note 1, at 18.

[2] Washington State Institute on Public Policy, Benefit-Costs Results: Nurse Family Partnership for low-income families, available at http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/BenefitCost/Program/35.

[3] Blueprints For Healthy Youth Development, Nurse-Family Partnership Fact Sheet, available at http://www.blueprintsprograms.com/factSheet.php?pid=972a67c48192728a34979d9a35164c1295401b71.

[4] Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, Triple P System Fact Sheet, available at http://www.blueprintsprograms.com/factSheet.php?pid=07fd89a40a3755e21a5884640f23eaf59b66df35.

[5] Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, Good Behavior Game Fact Sheet, available at http://www.blueprintsprograms.com/factSheet.php?pid=91032ad7bbcb6cf72875e8e8207dcfba80173f7c .

[6] The Incredible Years Child Treatment Program is an effective crime deterrent by teaching children ages 2-8 conflict management and emotional literacy.  See Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, Incredible Years- Child Treatment, available at http://www.blueprintsprograms.com/factSheet.php?pid=8746b7e5d534efa196e92e53c61ec747f4c936a5.

[7] The University of Chicago Crime Lab, supra note 14.

[8] See generally, Malika Saada Saar et al., Human Rights Project for Girls, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story (2015).

[9] Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, Multisystemic Therapy (MST), available at http://www.blueprintsprograms.com/factSheet.php?pid=cb4e5208b4cd87268b208e49452ed6e89a68e0b8; Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, Functional Family Therapy (FFT), available at http://www.blueprintsprograms.com/factSheet.php?pid=0a57cb53ba59c46fc4b692527a38a87c78d84028. 

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