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D.C.'s Juvenile Justice System Sees Real Change

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By: Sayre Quevedo

In Washington D.C., the Oak Hill juvenile detention center was well-known for its decaying interior, rampant drug-use, and abusive guards. As part of sweeping reforms, Oak Hill was closed in 2009 and replaced by a smaller and dramatically different facility, appropriately-named New Beginnings Youth Development Center.

A report released this week titled, "Notorious to Notable," authored by Liz Ryan from the Campaign For Youth Justice and Marc Schindler from Venture Philanthropy Partners, details the transformation of Washington's D.C.'s juvenile justice system in the years since 2000 when then Mayor Anthony Williams' appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to reexamine the issue.

We interviewed Daniel Okonkwo, founder and the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY), which provides legal representation to young people and works to reform juvenile justice policy. DCLY partners with the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, where many of the changes detailed in the report have been seen firsthand by Okonkwo.

Sayre Quevedo: So it's been almost two years since Oak Hill was closed and New Beginnings was opened. Are there any tangible changes you have seen in the community and among youth since this has happened?

Daniel Okonkwo: Yes, absolutely.  There have been a lot of real changes. I think most noticeably, and the crown jewel in the juvenile justice agency's crown, is that there are over 19 young people who are in college right now who have come through New Beginnings.

At Oak Hill, that was impossible. A lot of the kids at Oak Hill were actually suspended from the school [within the facility], so not only were they ripped from their communities and taken away from their community schools and isolated, they weren't even getting an education at Oak Hill. But now we have young people who are coming out [of New Beginnings] and getting reconnected to school and reconnected to the degree that they're going onto college.

There are also young people that are learning trades. There's a metal workshop that New Beginnings has that teaches kids vocational work. No thought was given to the reentry  of young people [back into their communities] during the days of Oak Hill. Or if there was any thought it was, "just give them some schooling and they'll be okay on their own." New Beginnings actually tracks them 6 months out to make sure they're still connected to school.

SQ: In the report, "Notorious to Notable" it says that beyond fixing the facility, there was a focus on more community resources for youth. What sort of resources are there now?

DO: Right now we have a system where kids are connected to community-based services such as mentoring, workforce development, art education, and athletics trainings, and other vocation skill-building. So what happens when a young person comes out of New Beginnings is that there's a meeting between them, the counselors at New Beginnings and the community organizations, to connect them to those services.

In 2009, only around 12 percent of young people were connected to any service, whether it be mentoring, after-school programs, coming out of New Beginnings. But now, over 88 percent are connected to two or more services. That means that young people when they come out don't just come back to their community and aren't just left dangling on their own, trying to find ways to fill their time, they're connected to services that engage them.  And also are able to kind of monitor their behavior without the stigma of being locked up.

SQ: How are the transitional programs at New Beginnings different from what was in place before?

DO: What would happen before was that a young person would come out and if there were any services they were connected to, they wouldn't know about them until they left the walls of Oak Hill. Right now those meetings happen while they're still in the facility.

There isn't a lag time, if you will, in-between them getting out and them getting connected to services. They know about the services as they're walking out.  There's this whole idea that reentry planning should start when they enter the facility. And that's what's happening at New Beginnings.

SQ: Where do you see it going from here? Do you seen any national reform on the horizon?

DO:  D.C. is part of a national movement to start closing down big, megalithic, juvenile jail-type facilities. It's happening in Louisiana. It's happening in New York State. 

As far as what is coming next, what I think what D.C. needs to do, and any other state that is going towards a community-based model of supervision, is that we need to continue to invest in these organizations that are doing this community work.  It's important that city governments, even in tough budgetary times, continue to value this work and fund it because it's much more fiscally responsible to fund these community-based organizations than it is to put money into incarceration or building new youth facilities.

SQ: What sort of change has the juvenile justice system in D.C. seen as a whole, if any?

DO: It's seen significant changes.  By no means are these reforms complete or has any job been accomplished but I think we are moving in the right direction. We've seen re-offending rates drop, we've seen the overall arrests of juveniles drop to their lowest rates in a very long time, certainly a lot lower than when Oak Hill was being used.

And those are two really big changes because the community needs to feel like these reforms are working and they need to feel safe, and they should. I think with crime rates and arrests going down that's one accomplishment.

I also think one of the big changes is that people, not only advocates like myself, but I think community based organizations as well as the city government, are realizing that juvenile justice work is not just having a youth jail, it's really making sure that young people have communities that have organizations, that have services and programs in them that keep kids either  one, from not coming in contact with the system or two,  if they do come into contact with any system there are the resources that make sure they don't do it again.

SQ: What sort of work is DC Lawyers for Youth doing right now?

DO: Right now we're working on a number of fronts. We started as an organization that was primarily concerned with insuring that the D.C. Juvenile Justice System is one that is treatment based rather than punishment based.  And so we did that through a lot of legislative advocacy, so weighing in on legislative proposals that affect juvenile justice policy.

Right now we're doing that but we're also doing a lot of coalition building. So we bring in organizations of people who work with youth generally, and youth in the juvenile justice arena, to try and make sure that our coalition is working to ensure a rehabilitative system is more than subject matter. We're trying to get people to understand that juvenile justice work is not just justice work, it's youth work.

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org