DC Reforms Offer Some Kids New Beginning

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This month, our sister publication Youth Today features a  piece on D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) by Kaukab Jhumra Smith. Youth Today, is dedicated to providing quality journalism on issues of interest to those involved in the youth services industry. This, of course, includes stories in the arena of juvenile justice such as Kaukab’s story. But this month’s issue also includes stories on what youth-oriented organizations should do to prepare for natural disasters, how to head off abusive relationships between teens, book reviews, opinion pieces, an explainer on the art of statistics and a photo spread on the impact of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on the youth-oriented organizations and young people.

Youth Today prints six time a year. You may also see postings daily at its website youthtoday.org

Have a look at an excerpt of Kaukab’s story below:

Marco Taylor chats with Capt. Steve Baynes, his former superintendent at New Beginnings, on a break from tearing down the barbed wire fence around the old Oak Hill Youth Center.

LAUREL, Md. — A few years ago, facilities manager Carl Matthews rounded a corner inside a residential unit of a secure juvenile center near Washington, D.C., and came across the dangling body of a boy who had, moments earlier, hung himself from the metal pipes that crisscrossed the ceiling of his room.

A sheet was wrapped so tightly around the boy’s throat that Matthews was afraid to cut it with an emergency knife. “I hoisted him up and another guy got his fingers in and we got him down. But that night was what haunted me,” Matthews said. “I just couldn’t fathom being that hopeless at 16.”

The boy survived. His suicide attempt was one more strike against the Oak Hill Youth Center, the secure juvenile facility for the District of Columbia that has been described by at least one advocate as “quite frankly, a hell-hole.” During its lifetime, from 1967 to 2009, Oak Hill developed a reputation as a grim breeding ground for adult prison, a “beat-up and beat-‘em-up” place that lumped together high-risk kids with low-risk ones and functioned as a rite of passage for generations of young black men.

In 2009, the District closed the 208-bed Oak Hill and opened an airy, glass-and-brick 60-bed campus less than a mile away, part of a sweeping set of reforms in the juvenile justice system that the city government began working on nearly a decade ago. In doing so, the District joined a growing list of jurisdictions that are moving away from the harshly punitive systems that became particularly widespread following spikes in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

In the last 15 years, as juvenile crime rates have fallen throughout the country – for reasons that even top analysts cannot definitively identify – so has public pressure to get tough on crime. As a result, jurisdictions like the District are able to adopt more innovative, rehabilitative approaches that keep young offenders closer to their families and offer them community-based services that take into account their age and brain development, said Akiva Liberman, a senior fellow at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

While the District is near the forefront of this movement, it is certainly not alone, said Sarah Bryer, director of the D.C.-based National Juvenile Justice Network. States like California, Alabama, Florida and New York have undertaken similar measures to reduce the number of young people held in secure facilities. “Across the country, jurisdictions are realizing that incarcerating youth in secure confinement facilities neither serves public safety interests, doesn’t help the children, nor does it help the state budget,” Bryer said.

Reducing capacity at secure residential facilities frees up scarce resources for developing quality wrap-around services within the community, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “If we increase the juvenile justice budget by 10 times, we would not have these (secure) buildings,” Butts said. “We would have a full-time teacher and a social worker and a cognitive therapist and a job placement coordinator. We would just create teams of support around that kid and try to recreate the good parenting that they’re lacking.”

In some cases, community-based services and monitoring may not be enough to maintain public safety, he said. “It will always be necessary to take some kids out who are incapable of playing by the rules and behaving,” Butts said. “But the risk is that institutions grow so comfortable with that that they lower the threshold for that commitment.”

He continued, “When you reduce capacity, it forces people to get serious about which young people really need to be locked up.”

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