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D.C.’s top juvenile-justice official, Vincent Schiraldi, wants to revolutionize how the city deals with youths who’ve been convicted of crimes. He believes that the agency he directs, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), should offer some of the city’s toughest kids a shot at a brighter future, not just a bit of junior-varsity seasoning to prepare them for time in adult prisons. And for a director with no previous experience running a government agency, Schiraldi has at least one indication that his reform effort is gaining traction: He has pissed off the union representing guards at agency facilities.
“I don’t think Vinny has the same concept of discipline as the correctional officers have,” says youth corrections officer Glenn Adams, who works at the DYRS’s Oak Hill detention center in Anne Arundel County. “His idea of consequences is not our idea of consequences.” Adams is president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) local at DYRS and says he likes Schiraldi’s passion. But he worries that the new boss is too soft. “Vinny is not a disciplinarian.”
Guards probably like their odds when it comes to facing down and outlasting reformist wardens. Adams figures he’s worked for “eight, maybe nine” directors during his 17 years at Oak Hill. “All of them came in promising some kind of miracle,” he says.
And sometimes it seems as if divine intervention is the only hope for fixing the DYRS, which consists of the 195-bed Oak Hill, the 80-bed Youth Services Center, and a bevy of community-based programs. The department’s detention centers have a history of violence, murder, drug use, and escapes. Many of the units at Oak Hill are dimly lit, dingy, and run-down. Inside the razor wire, the center looks more like a crumbling prison than a place where troubled young people are supposed to learn how to avoid a life of crime. The agency operates under a 20-year-old consent decree that grew out of a lawsuit filed by the parents of Oak Hill detainees who found conditions deplorable. During that time, the city has been fined millions of dollars for not complying with court orders.
Mark Steward, who ran the Missouri Division of Youth Services for 18 years, recently surveyed the DYRS. He now heads a consulting firm that Schiraldi hired to remake D.C.’s agency in the image of Missouri’s system, which boasts the lowest recidivism rate for juvenile offenders in the nation. “I’ve seen some more-abusive and -violent systems that really treated kids in a bad way, but D.C. had this feeling of neglect—lethargic hopelessness,” Steward says. “[The agency] had been neglected for years and years by previous directors.”
It’s easy to see why Schiraldi’s choice of the Missouri model might unnerve guards who once ran a military-style boot camp at Oak Hill. Schiraldi says research shows that get-tough programs have been a dismal failure. He wants to decentralize D.C.’s youth-corrections system and emphasize rehabilitating young offenders in a homey, small-group setting. In Missouri, youth-corrections facilities aren’t surrounded by razor wire. The kids wear their own clothes instead of uniforms. For Schiraldi, the key to turning kids around is building a system that exposes detainees to positive and caring relationships. “Right now, [guards] consider their jobs counting, cuffing, and moving the kids. You can’t treat these kids like numbers, and that’s what we’ve done,” he says. “You just make them more pathological. That’s the history.”
And Schiraldi didn’t win any friends among guards last spring when he proposed cutting overtime costs by changing work schedules that had given staff every other weekend off. The union balked, saying workers had already made summer plans, and that staff shortages, not scheduling, were the culprit for high overtime costs. Schiraldi hired more guards and agreed to delay the new schedule until the fall. “That [overtime] money comes out of programs,” Schiraldi says. “Delaying the change slowed me down. It cost us money and burned up more time with 10 meetings.”
Schiraldi expects some veterans are sabotaging his efforts but says many of his employees—including some guards—are embracing a more-positive approach with detainees. “People are starting to buy it,” he says. “But there’s also a certain percentage who would like me run over by a truck.”
Vehicular assault would be just one step up from the sort of violence that continues to plague Oak Hill. Since June 2005, there have been 31 detainee attacks on staff—a reality that makes guard advocates wary of their director’s be-nice-to-the-kids rhetoric. “This isn’t Missouri,” says the FOP’s Adams. “I don’t see Vinny doing what is needed to protect the workers.”
The union’s reaction doesn’t surprise Schiraldi. “I know I’m too much of an advocate for the kids. I don’t come across as balanced enough,” he says; previously, he worked for various groups that called for sweeping reforms to the juvenile justice system. “I came in as a loud-mouthed know-it-all.”
It’s not as if Schiraldi got the job by telling his potential employers what they wanted to hear. Mayor Anthony A. Williams took a big chance when he tapped the cantankerous advocate to head up the DYRS. And everyone knew Schiraldi wasn’t his first choice. He was a sharp-tongued critic of the District government who demanded that the city close Oak Hill and had no experience running a big bureaucracy. “If you could look at my résumé, you’d say, ‘You don’t have any right to run a 600-person agency,’” he says. “I still am an advocate….They knew what they were getting when we got here.”
What they got was a straight-talking native of a tough, working-class section of Brooklyn who religiously believes in a compassionate approach to juvenile justice. The city also got a hyperactive and demanding director with little patience for the legendary D.C.-government bureaucracy. And the events of Schiraldi’s rookie season haven’t done anything to change his attitude.
It’s taken almost a full year for the city to complete a contract with Steward’s consulting firm, a group that turned down work offered by several other states and cities to work with the District. City sources say nitpicking by D.C. contracting staff nearly sent Steward packing on more than one occasion. During contract negotiations, a D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement examiner informed Steward that his staff could save $100 per person by taking a 6 a.m. Sunday flight through Cleveland to Washington, according to an agency source. “These people have run the best juvenile-justice program in the country, bar none,” Schiraldi says. “And it just took forever to bring them on. In the meantime, the facility is embroiled—bad stuff is happening.”
While the agency has waited to adopt the Missouri model and laid plans to close Oak Hill in 2009, Schiraldi has initiated alternatives to detention for nonviolent youth offenders. He’s placed some youths facing charges with their families and opened reporting centers so that he can keep tabs on them. He’s beefed up the unit that tracks down kids who walk away from group homes or home detention. The number of youths who are unaccounted for has been cut from 102 to 52 per month. Detainees are being taught basic job skills during detention and after their release. At Oak Hill, Schiraldi ordered repairs on the worst detention areas and established a clean, model detention unit. But that wasn’t enough for Schiraldi. “I’m totally impatient,” he says. “We should have done more in a year. I would give myself a C-.”
Schiraldi’s internal critics wouldn’t be so charitable. Two kids under agency care died in 2005. One youth who fled a group home was shot and killed this past summer. And Schiraldi’s Thanksgiving break was cut short by a call informing him that a 16-year-old held at Oak Hill had died after a fight with two other detainees.
Gregory Powers, who spent almost 20 years as a guard at Oak Hill, says his colleagues should cut Schiraldi some slack. Powers, who is now an assistant superintendent at the facility, says previous directors blackballed him for promotion to the management ranks because he spoke out about the poor treatment of detainees and officers. “One of the major things that he is bringing is empowering people like myself who have been here a long time,” says Powers. “He brought back a lot of the enthusiasm that had long been sucked from people.”
BARRY’S LAWYER RELIEF BILL
Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. has forged an intimate relationship with the legal profession. Over the years, his lawyer pals have logged long hours bailing him out of various jams. Barry will no doubt again be spending a lot of quality time with attorneys in light of recent reports that he tested positive for cocaine after a court-ordered drug test. Maybe that explains Barry’s need to rush to the aid of one ex-barrister.
At the Jan. 4 council session, Barry introduced a bill “to require the D.C. Court of Appeals to vacate an order of disbarment issued against a member of the bar who has been convicted of ‘an offense involving moral turpitude,’ in the event that the convicted person is granted a pardon,” according to a summary of the bill.
Let’s see, a former lawyer who was convicted of an offense involving moral turpitude, disbarred, and pardoned by a president? Theoretically, that description could apply to more than one person. But it precisely matches the résumé of D.C. resident William A. Borders Jr. In 1982, a federal jury convicted Borders of bribery after he promised an undercover FBI agent he could fix a case before U.S. District Judge Alcee L. Hastings. Borders was sentenced to five years in prison. Hastings was impeached after a Florida jury acquitted him of racketeering charges. Some African-Americans felt that Hastings, now a member of Florida’s Congressional delegation, was railroaded by a lily-white Senate, and Borders was found in contempt when he refused to appear before a Senate impeachment committee.
President Bill Clinton pardoned Borders, along with 139 others, on his last day in office. The Borders pardon was widely criticized because he was among a gaggle of pardoned convicts who just happened to have strong connections to the Democratic Party.
When Barry introduced his lawyer-relief bill, he claimed the measure was needed to bring the city “into conformity with other states.” He argued that most states recognize that a presidential pardon wipes a person’s record “totally clean” and should prompt the D.C. Bar to automatically vacate any disbarment order against a pardoned person. Barry’s bill was ruled out of order by D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp because the city’s home-rule charter bars the council from amending laws governing the courts. Barry agreed to make it a nonbinding sense of the council resolution that would not carry the force of law.
Barry did not return calls seeking comment, but his legislative counsel, E. Faye Williams, claims the bill has nothing to do with trying to help a particular convicted, disbarred, pardoned lawyer who is seeking reinstatement to the D.C. Bar. Still, one council staffer who knows Borders says the former lawyer was spotted in the halls of the John A. Wilson Building around the time Barry introduced the bill.
The D.C. courts have denied Borders’ application for reinstatement twice, most recently in 2002. According to a summary of the 2002 appeals-court denial, Borders told the court that his pardon entitled him to automatic reinstatement to the D.C. Bar. The court said the Bar could readmit him but was not compelled to do so. A person who answered the phone at Borders’ Northeast residence but refused to identify himself said that Borders is out of town and could not comment. —James Jones
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