Monday, April 15, 2013

The Big (Budget) Picture for Juvenile Justice in the District of Columbia

As budget season has gotten underway, I have received numerous questions about whether I believe that the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services – which is seeking a $105M appropriation (a decrease of 1.5% from FY2013) – needs the money requested in the various line items. My response – perhaps not necessarily the response that people wanted to hear – is that I believed they were asking the wrong question. If our goal is to find cost-savings, then we should not be asking where we can cut DYRS’s budget and short-change the youth under DYRS supervision, but how we can prevent youth from coming into contact with DYRS in the first place. The answer to this question requires taking a bigger picture view of the budget, instead of focusing on the line items proposed by DYRS. Taking a broader view of the budget starts by recognizing three key characteristics of the District’s juvenile justice system.

First, we have to understand that DYRS is merely a part of the juvenile justice system in the District of Columbia. While many think that DYRS is responsible for supervising and rehabilitating all court-involved youth, the reality is that DYRS’s role is actually limited to housing detained youth prior to disposition and housing, supervising, and rehabilitating committed youth. In the juvenile justice world, we call DYRS’s role the “deep-end” of the system.

Second, we have to understand that DYRS plays this “deep-end” role in a juvenile justice system where control, financial responsibility, accountability, and data-collection are split between federal and local control. Indeed, as illustrated in the chart below and explained in more depth in our budget brief, youth involved in the delinquency system in the District often bounce between federal and local agencies within and between the various phases of the process. Commitment to DYRS is often the place court-involved youth land when other interventions have not worked.

Third, we have to understand that the District juvenile justice system as a whole currently serves as the safety net for far too many youth in our city. 95% of the youth who get arrested in the District live below the federal poverty line. Over 70% of those arrested live in under-resourced neighborhoods with failing schools, high unemployment, and low rates of educational attainment. Because of the circumstances into which many are born, our District youth have a razor-thin margin for error. As a result, every time a youth is suspended from school, is denied much-needed special education services, or slips through the cracks of the District’s behavioral health system, the youth becomes far more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

So what can we derive from this big picture look at the District’s juvenile justice system in terms of the budget process?

First, we must all recognize that so long as we rely on the juvenile justice system as a social safety net, it is going to cost the District a significant amount of money. This is especially true of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services because of the agency’s “deep-end” role in the system. High-need, high-risk youth require rigorous rehabilitative services, whether it be 24-hour around-the-clock surveillance and confinement or intensive, community-based wrap-around services. As Frederick Douglas stated, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” It turns out that it is far cheaper to do so as well.

Second, as we started off this blog post by stating, the best way to save money on the deep-end of the system is to make sure a youth does not come into contact with the deep-end in the first place.

At the micro level (i.e. the juvenile justice system level), this requires increased coordination between federal and District agencies to create additional programs that successfully rehabilitate youth at the least restrictive level consistent with public safety. In particular, we would propose that additional investments be made to strengthen or create diversion programs at all stages of the juvenile justice system – diversion from arrest, diversion from prosecution, diversion from probation, and diversion from commitment. We would also propose a renewed commitment to decreasing our reliance on pre-disposition incarceration.

At a macro level (i.e. the full cradle-to-adulthood continuum of youth development), this means that “front-end” agencies not only need to be held more accountable, but also must be given the resources to invest in proven programs and strategies that ensure that our youth do not fall through the cracks. In particular, we would recommend that the District be as aggressive with school push-out as it has been with truancy going forward. Every student should be in school every day. We would also recommend a renewed commitment to providing special education and behavioral health services to youth in a timely and accessible manner. If youth do not have the wrap-around services that eliminate the barriers to success in the classroom, they will not be able to learn and engage.

Hopefully, in future budget cycles we can take a step back and look at the bigger picture of youth development in the District and conduct our budget oversight – as policy makers and advocates – with a eye trained more on how we can save money by investing wisely rather than merely through cutting or shifting spending.

Eddie Ferrer is the Co-Founder and Legal & Policy Director at DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY), a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the DC juvenile justice system by advocating for reforms that promote positive youth development, effective legal representation, and supportive relationships between the community and DC’s youth. For more information, please follow DCLY on Facebook and Twitter. Eddie can be contacted at

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