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D.C. juvenile-justice reformer Vincent Schiraldi is running into some trouble with D.C. Superior Court. The rub? Schiraldi doesn’t want to confine certain kids who are awaiting trial; the court has a different philosophy: When in doubt, lock them up.
Schiraldi, who heads up the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), is always looking for alternatives to warehousing children who’ve run afoul of the law. Last July, he launched a program to identify nonviolent kids charged with an offense who have support at home. Instead of placing such kids in a shelter or in detention while awaiting trial, the court has the option of ordering them to go directly from school to one of the city’s two Evening Reporting Centers (ERCs). At the centers, the juveniles get help with homework and participate in a wide range of activities. At around 9 p.m., a center staff member drives them home.
The centers are supposed to help not only the children but also the juvenile-justice system. As ERC slots fill up, the theory holds, the number of kids at bona fide detention pens such as the Oak Hill Youth Center would decline, providing a huge pressure release for a system hoping to cut its detained population from about 130 to 80 over the next three years.
The problem is, some of the kids assigned to ERCs have gone AWOL. The Honorable William Jackson, deputy presiding judge of the D.C. family court, says that 26 kids have been “terminated” for not showing up or for bailing on the program. That’s a 30 percent failure rate. Most disturbing to Jackson is that the court was not notified that 17 of these kids fell off the radar screen. “We found out about some of these kids when they reoffended,” he says. Court data shows that three of those terminated were rearrested.
Accordingly, Jackson and his colleagues in family court have grown reluctant to send kids off to the city’s ERCs. Of the 60 contracted slots in the ERC program, only 28 are currently filled.
One of the ERCs is located in a police station on Shepherd Street NW, where the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) has been working with kids for almost a year; the other ERC, at Ward 8’s ARCH Training Center, got its first participants on Feb. 28, according to DYRS staff. Plans for a third reporting center are on hold.
The LAYC accounts for most of Jackson’s gripes. The group not only didn’t report defections to the court, says Jackson, but the LAYC also didn’t carry out its transportation duties. “The model was pick the kids up at school and return them home after the evening session,” says Jackson. “But that wasn’t the case.”
“That gave us some concerns about the accountability of the program,” continues Jackson, who is not driven by any executive directive to reform the juvenile-justice system. “We have a different mandate,” he says. “We have a statute that we have to follow.” Jackson says the judges make their decisions about where to place a juvenile who has been charged with a crime “based on community safety, flight risk, and social circumstances.”
Mai Fernandez, the LAYC’s chief operating officer, takes issue with Jackson’s critique. Her staff isn’t responsible for reporting when a child is terminated, she says. They report attendance to the DYRS, which is supposed to pass information along to the proper authorities. She was surprised to learn that Jackson mentioned problems with transportation and claims enrollees’ absences often occur because parole and probation officials enroll kids in numerous programs. “We are at one end of a pipeline, and the judge is at the other end of the pipeline,” says Fernandez. DYRS staff point out that only two of the 86 kids assigned to an ERC were rearrested while attending the program.
The tepid response to ERCs leaves Schiraldi in a tough spot. Although the reform-minded director has plenty of politicians in his corner—including Mayor Anthony A. Williams and virtually the entire D.C. Council—the success of his programs hangs on the judges and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General. If those folks don’t buy into his alternative programs, efforts to reduce the detained population will stall.
And Schiraldi is well aware of the reluctance of juvenile-justice veterans to change.
“The whole world just came out of the superpredator era,” he says, a reference to the time when fear of youth crime prompted calls for adult-style punishment and military boot-camp programs.
The concerns raised by Jackson are old news to attorney Peter Nickles, who has represented plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the DYRS for more than a decade. [Judges] do it the safe way,” he says. “The way they see it, if a kid is a potential danger, you need to put him in secure detention.” He hasn’t seen many judges warm to his argument that too many young offenders charged with minor offenses are locked up. “When you try to reform a system, you have a lot of folks who just don’t want to be embarrassed,” he says.
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While Schiraldi reaches out to mollify judges with one arm, he’s using the other to fend off the union representing guards at Oak Hill, who are in open revolt against his kinder, gentler approach to turning around youthful offenders. That’s the price Schiraldi pays for exuberant salesmanship. “I had a big mouth. I got a lot of publicity,” he says. “I can’t blame people for being nervous.” Schiraldi hasn’t lost any of his passion for moving kids out of detention and remains confident that the ERC program can be fixed.
Schiraldi meets regularly with judges and other court personnel and is working on a memorandum of understanding on alternative placements with D.C. Family Court Presiding Judge Anita Josey-Herring. But even an eternal optimist like Schiraldi knows the clock is ticking on his plans. “I think if we don’t start to see some movement in the detention population in six months, we are going to have to look at other alternatives.”
PHIL PANNELL SCARES THE “SS” OUT OF SEEGARS
Two top officers of the Ward 8 Democrats are doing their best to keep the group’s well-deserved reputation as a bastion of petty personal battles alive. This time the D.C. police are involved.
The spat dates back to last fall, and it involves two of Ward 8’s great personalities—Philip Pannell, president of the Ward 8 Democrats, and Sandra “SS” Seegars, the group’s second vice president. The pivot point was the Sept. 17, 2005, Ward 8 Democrats election. Pannell won the vote, but Seegars objected to seating him.
Seegars appealed Pannell’s victory to the D.C. Democratic State Committee. She argued that Pannell had missed the deadline for getting on the ballot, and she chastised the Ward 8 executive committee for letting him run. The matter was finally resolved in an April 19 vote by the state committee to make his overwhelming victory official.
But Pannell was in no mood to celebrate after getting the state committee’s blessing.
Earlier in the day, two uniformed D.C. police officers arrived at the offices of ADA Inc. in Anacostia, where Pannell works. According to ADA employee Phyllis Brown, the officers were looking for Pannell. “From what I’d seen, the police came in and [were] questioning Mr. Pannell about Ms. Seegars,” says Brown.
Pannell says the officers informed him that Seegars considered him a threat and that she was planning to seek a “stay-away” order from the court. The officers were very polite, according to Pannell, who says, “They seemed like they were trying to figure out what was going on,” rather than gauge whether he had actually threatened Seegars.
Seegars says Pannell is playing dumb when it comes to his threats. “Phil said he was going to get me” after she challenged the election results, says Seegars. “In my neighborhood, when somebody puts out word that they are going to get you, that’s serious business….If you see someone coming down the street who’s told a bunch of people they’re going to get you, you got to be ready to kill them where I live.” Pannell says he never told anyone he would “get” Seegars.
Early last week, Seegars ran into a couple of officers she knows and inquired whether they would serve Pannell if she sought an order. “They said that they would,” she says.
Why the unidentified officers took it upon themselves to stir the Ward 8 Democrats pot is anyone’s guess. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department says the department is looking into the incident.
Seegars claims she has good reason to fear Pannell. As she puts it, “He is mentally unstable…I know he was on medication, and I don’t know if he is now,” she says.
The reference to Pannell’s mental health is “a low blow,” he says. Pannell has openly talked about his past struggles with bipolar disorder. He says he no longer takes medication because his illness is under control. Pannell says he “has been blessed” by a full recovery. “And besides, who could I beat up?” he asks.
“She is a profoundly disturbed person,” says Pannell. “I have a certifiable condition. I’ve made no secret of that. So what’s her problem?”
PROJECT LABOR AGREEMENT ROUND II
When the baseball-stadium lease passed the council this spring, some people were relieved that they wouldn’t see Bobby Green around for a while. Green, who heads up the Capital Area Minority Contractors and Business Association, was a loud and sometimes obnoxious opponent of the agreement for stadium construction.
That deal gave most of the big ballpark construction contracts to union shops in return for a pledge by unions to hire and train some D.C. workers, and Green made sure every councilmember heard his rap about how the accord, known as the Project Labor Agreement (PLA), hurts small contractors in the city.
After a very short respite, Bobby’s back.
This time he’s working to keep a similar labor “preference” out of the open-ended $200-million-per-year school modernization program. A relatively new political action committee, Citizens for Empowerment—funded by two non-union construction giants, Miller & Long and MC Dean—is footing the bill for the new labor-bashing push. Both companies are associate members of Green’s group and helped to bankroll his very pricey, but unsuccessful, campaign to kill the stadium PLA.
Green’s anti-union ground troops are on the move, handing out slick green-and-white pamphlets asking, “Who should benefit most from new schools?” The answer: “Our Children”—and certainly not organized labor. The handout proclaims that PLAs “unfairly block competition and keep our democratic, market-based economy from doing its job,” and asks readers to contact their councilmember.
Call it a preemptive strike on the politically powerful unions, which haven’t been making much noise about their plans for the schools project. But the AFL-CIO’s Josh Williams says he is pressing for an arrangement with the schools that’s similar to the stadium deal. “I expect that we will be able to work something out with the District government and the schools,” he says.
Green says that this time the anti-labor forces won’t be caught napping while labor leaders craft a backroom school-renovation deal. “We ain’t going let this one sleep,” he says.
But Citizens for Empowerment and Green might just be throwing money down a rathole. Why, for instance, is the campaign appealing to the D.C. Council? That body, after all, has little voice in the labor policies of the D.C. Public Schools. School officials did not return calls seeking comment.
For Green, though, labor’s quiet effort to snatch a piece of the school-construction pie calls him back to the front lines. “There’s going to be some good fighting here,” Green says. “And you know I’m going to be in there mixing it up.”—James Jones
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