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With the growing media coverage of gang-related and other crimes by young people in the D.C. metropolitan area, the public could be forgiven if they believe that juvenile crime is on the rise. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) has warned that gangs “are ravaging our communities like cancer — urban, rural, rich, and poor — and they are metastasizing from one community to the next as they grow.” But those fears fly in the face of the real data on juvenile crime. By every government measure, juvenile crime is declining sharply. Policy-makers and the public must not be pushed by exaggerated news coverage. We must chart a course driven by data, not hyperbole, as we look to improve public safety and address the serious issue of youth crime. This year the Justice Department reported that gang crime had declined a whopping 73 percent over the past decade. Violent crime in Virginia fell by 25 percent during that same period. And while even one homicide is too many, homicides committed by Latino gangs in the District; Fairfax County, Va.; and Montgomery County, Md., account for just 1 percent of homicides in those jurisdictions since 2000. In the District, where I run the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, we’re moving carefully toward a system that uses rigorous community-based services for some youthful offenders, and secure programs that are both rehabilitative and humane for others who have to be locked up for their safety and ours. Unfortunately, the department’s job is made more difficult by hyped news stories — although Washington’s elected officials and judges are made of stern stuff and have been supportive of our efforts. LESS INCARCERATION In seeking to make more judicious use of locked custody, we have plenty of examples to examine, starting with the District’s own experiences. In the early 1990s the city had a juvenile incarceration rate of 1,039 per 100,000 youths, held in three large, decrepit institutions. By 2004 that incarceration rate had been cut nearly in half, to 554 per 100,000, and two of those three institutions had been closed. Even though we’re now locking up many fewer kids, the rate of youth crime is down substantially. According to a 2004 analysis by the Urban Institute, violent-juvenile arrests in the District were 52 percent lower in 2003 than they were in 1995 and homicide arrests of juveniles had dropped by 92 percent. Ironically, during this same period, more adults were locked up, but adult crime fell less than juvenile crime. Although juveniles seem to be garnering the lion’s share of the headlines, 14 times as many adults have been arrested in the District so far this year. Since I took this position, in January 2005, the department has worked with the courts, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to “right-size” the number of youths held in locked custody. The result has been a 23 percent decline in the number of kids held in our most secure facilities. And yet, serious juvenile crime and homicides by juveniles have both declined in the first six months of 2005. Serious juvenile crime is down 26 percent compared with the first half of 2004, and homicides by juveniles have been cut in half. Why is it that fewer incarcerations of young people in the District (and in Chicago; Portland, Ore.; and Missouri) has corresponded with less violent crime by young people? BETTER BEHAVIOR Growing evidence from increasingly sophisticated research shows that when young people are incarcerated in large, locked institutions, their behavior gets worse, not better. Obviously, some young people need to be locked up for their safety and ours, and all young people who break the law need to be held accountable. But that is not the same as saying that they should all be held in the equivalent of adult prison. Research and experience are showing that when nonviolent young offenders are supervised in rigorous programs in their own communities, not only does the crime rate fall, but the taxpayers save money. By contrast, putting lots of delinquent youths together in a large institution like the District’s Oak Hill Youth Center — sometimes called a “training school” or “reform school” — magnifies already existing delinquency. One of the better studies found that prior incarceration was the single strongest predictor of future delinquency — six times stronger than gang membership and eight times stronger than poor family relationships. That gives new meaning to the phrase “schools for crime.” Our challenge as responsible adults and policymakers is to figure out how to securely confine those youths who need to be confined in decent, rehabilitative facilities, while diverting youth who don’t need to be incarcerated into community programs that can both hold them accountable and help them turn their lives around. Although the District will have to use its own ingenuity, two jurisdictions offer some promising examples — the state of Missouri and the city of Chicago. MODELS TO EMULATE In the 1980s, Missouri had two large, brutal locked institutions. Today it has a network of small, decent, and humane locked facilities close to young people’s homes. These facilities, which generally house no more than 20 to 40 kids each, feel a lot more like oversized group houses than prisons. The staff work hard to establish a culture in which small groups of juveniles hold one another accountable for their actions through a process called “guided group interaction.” A recent evaluation of the Missouri model found that only 8 percent of its system’s graduates get sent to adult prison within three years of completion, compared with 32 percent of the D.C. system’s graduates. Chicago is a model site for an increasingly popular national reform called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The JDAI focuses on youths in pretrial detention, following a collaborative, data-driven approach to making appropriate use of detention facilities. In Chicago they analyzed their system’s various subpopulations and found that many youths were locked up for violating technical conditions of release or running away from home. They also discovered that kids were languishing for months, awaiting resolution of their case or placement into a more rehabilitative setting, like a foster home. So Chicago officials took several steps: They created a “risk assessment instrument” to help them determine objectively which youths did and did not belong in locked detention. They accelerated case-processing times by addressing systemic blockages. And they developed alternatives to incarceration aimed at borderline youths who could be appropriately released from detention but only with careful supervision. One creative example is the Evening Reporting Centers (ERCs). Many juveniles in Chicago (and the District) cannot be returned home, not because they are dangerous or pose a flight risk, but because there is no responsible adult at home during the evening hours to watch over them. In Chicago (and the District since July), these kids are ordered by the court to attend centers after school from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. in lieu of locked detention. Program staff pick the kids up at school and drive them to the center, where they are under adult supervision; are fed a snack and a meal; and participate in cultural, educational, counseling, and recreational programming until they are returned home. So far, 100 percent of juveniles were not rearrested while participating in the District’s ERC, run by the Latin American Youth Center, and 87.5 percent of those exiting the ERC have remained crime-free. Chicago’s programs are run under the guidance of a steering committee made up of judges, prosecutors, probationary officers, police, defense counsel, detention staff, and community-based providers. The initiative began in 1994. By 2002 the average daily detention population had dropped by 37 percent. Failure of youths to appear in court for scheduled hearings declined from 37 percent in 1996 to 16 percent in 2002. Most important, Chicago saw a drop in juvenile prosecutions during this time from 19,000 to 8,600. No other jurisdiction can teach us exactly what we need to do here, in the District, to reform our system. But if we avoid hyperbole and take a hard-nosed look at real crime statistics and the data from some promising approaches, we’ll keep both our young people and ourselves safer from harm.
Vincent Schiraldi is director of D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

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