DC Youth Court A Bright Spot In The Troubled Juvenile Justice System

January 23, 2011

We read a lot about the District of Columbia’s juvenile justice system. None of it good.

Violent crimes committed by youth who are supposed to be supervised by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Youth who’ve escaped from custody — reportedly dozens on the loose at any given time. Over-crowding at the hopefully-named New Beginnings, the secure facility that replaced the notorious Oak Hill.

Not in the news is an innovative program that’s proved successful in getting young people out of what the Children’s Defense Fund has called “America’s pipeline to prison.” It’s a court run by and for youth who’ve gotten in trouble with the law.

The DC Youth Court is what’s called a diversion program, i.e., an effort to keep juveniles out of the formal juvenile justice system. The goal would be no less worthwhile if our juvenile justice system were as good as it should be.

As I wrote some time ago, experts generally agree that detaining youth — and then too often incarcerating them — cause lifelong psychological and developmental damages.

Results include extraordinarily high near-term repeat arrest rates, barriers to reentry that affect later work prospects, chronic health problems and frequent recourse to crime in adulthood.

Add to these results for state budgets. Because, as with our general propensity to lock people up, our “get tough” juvenile justice policies are inordinately costly — on average, about $240 per day for each institutionalized young person.

Yet two-thirds of youth in custody in 2006 had committed no violent offense against another person — thus arguably would not have endangered public safety if allowed to remain in the community. Indeed, a goodly number were incarcerated for conduct that’s illegal only because of their age, e.g., truancy, being out after curfew.

Hence the growing interest in youth courts and other diversion problems.

Since 1996, the District’s Youth Court has offered an alternative adjudication system for teenagers who’ve committed a first and non-violent offense. Its Executive Director, Carolyn Dallas, says it’s now one of the largest youth courts in the country.

Teens are referred to the court by police officers who’ve arrested them and by the Superior Court’s social services personnel. Their cases are heard by a jury of their peers — no judge or formal rules of evidence involved.

At the close, the jury decides what an offender must do to make amends, e.g., community service, restoration for property damage, a written letter of apology and/or service as a Youth Court juror. Youth Court staff members may also refer offenders to local sources of services like tutoring, counseling and substance abuse treatment.

Since 2003, 11% of the youth who’ve referred have been rearrested. This includes youth who didn’t complete the process. Nationwide, recidivism rates for youth who’ve been incarcerated range from 50% to 70% within the first two years of release.

A recent survey of past participants in the DC Youth Court process found that 88% had graduated from high school or intended to graduate by June 2010. Of the high school graduates, 43% were enrolled in a four-year or community college. Many asked how they could continue volunteering with the court.

So here’s a program that works — not only by keeping youth out of the formal juvenile justice system, but by building a peer-driven sense of responsibility and a pathway out of the pipeline.

And it costs a fraction of what it could cost to lock them up or put them on supervised probation — an average of about $713 per youth served. According to a recent analysis, this is less than 0.6% of what the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services spends per youth per year.

Of course, we still need programs to deal with youth who demonstrably pose a danger to others and/or themselves. And the Youth Court doesn’t always succeed.

Last fiscal year, about a third of the offenders whose cases were heard didn’t follow through on their sanctions. At least some of them got passed back to the referring sources — and so maybe back into the formal juvenile justice system.

But I think all measures argue for ensuring that the DC Youth Court has the resources to accept as many suitable cases as possible. It’s been struggling with shrinking budgets for at least two years.

More shrinkage will surely mean fewer youth diverted from the District’s troubled and inherently problematic juvenile justice system.


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