Photo By Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Recent spikes in carjackings and other crimes throughout the District have a top word-association winner: youth employment. From the Office of the Attorney General to the Department of Employment Services, some D.C. agencies’ performance and role in curbing public safety issues have become increasingly linked to the degree with which they account, advocate, or provide for youth employment opportunities.

At the DOES oversight hearing on Monday, a panel dedicated to youth workforce development hit home the value of jobs for both economic empowerment and to avert the District’s public safety crisis. 

“It’s distressing to read accounts of carjackings, … shootings in our city, and see 13-, 14-, 15-year-old young people involved either as a perpetrator or as a victim,” said At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. 

When she asked for a solution, Marie Tata, a youth leader at The Young Women’s Project, touted volunteering and employment as grit-builders and purpose-finders—the ultimate violence prevention measures for youth, Tata said. 

And for high-school youth, D.C. shouldn’t stop at summertime jobs, said Gerald Norde, co-founder of the nonprofit Do The Write Thing Foundation of DC. No matter how impactful the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program was for folks like him, he doesn’t believe it’s enough. But just providing summer jobs for youth may cause a ripple effect, lowering violence not only during the period of employment but afterward as well, according to a John Jay College of Criminal Justice review of research-backed strategies to reduce violence without police intervention. A 2019 study of youth participants in a Chicago summer job program found that holding a part-time job, together with job training and mentorship, led to a significant drop in violent crime arrests among participants one year after the program.

In 2022, DOES plans to adopt an “earn and learn” approach by offering paid internships and apprenticeships while school is in session, Norde said. Extending these opportunities would allow more young people to regularly earn checks and help out their families. Still, Silverman offered a caveat.

“Everyone says jobs are the solution,” she said. “But we need employers … who know how to work with young people, have the capacity to work with young people. … We’ve all had experiences in the workplace that haven’t been that positive. And that’s not what we want our summer youth employment or year-round program to be.”

At an oversight hearing for the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement last Thursday, youth employment was also top of mind. While Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George and At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson pushed the agency for more “intentional” data to make the case for such violence prevention efforts, public witnesses lauded initiatives like the Pathways Program. They cited anecdotal successes among young individuals who received job training, temporary work placement, and job referrals through Pathways. The program is designed to help young adults at high risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

The renewed focus on preparing D.C. teens and young adults for jobs, and connecting them with work, comes as city officials look to quell public disquiet over the surge in carjackings throughout the District. To recap: Mayor Muriel Bowser and Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert Contee see juveniles at the crux of the issue. Of the 149 arrests made in 2021 related to D.C. carjacking incidents, 100 were of minors, according to recent data from police. Suspects in their teens and early 20s have been arrested for strings of carjackings in recent months and days

“The fact of the matter is, the public is nervous,” Lewis George said at the OAG oversight hearing. “They’re scared to go to a gas station. As a member of the public, I’m nervous as well.”

Last week, Bowser and Contee pointed fingers at the OAG, the agency responsible for prosecuting these offenses, claiming that kids are apprehended for carjacking and are then released and rearrested. Neither the chief nor the mayor could produce data to support their claims beyond anecdotal evidence. AG Karl Racine hit back with numbers from his office. There was a 51 percent drop in overall juvenile crime and 46 percent drop in violent crime from 2019 to 2021, according to OAG. In 2020, less than 7 percent of all arrests in D.C. were of juveniles, according to Racine. 

For Nate Fleming, the D.C. Council candidate you might know best from his carjacking-related campaign vows to target youth “disengagement,” jobs for kids are key. From the moment young men in hoodies jacked his BMW at a gas station in Northeast, Fleming has taken to Twitter to lament the link between violent crimes and “young people [who] are not being provided with economic opportunities,” as he was. (A 17-year-old boy was later arrested in connection with the carjacking.)  

So how do D.C. agencies and nonprofits step up this type of outreach to unemployed youth who have interacted with the criminal justice system? They should put information, and trustworthy messengers, for job readiness and placement programs where young people already hang out, according to Darnell Goings, who is active with The Fathering Court, an OAG initiative that specializes in services like counseling and job placement. At the OAG oversight hearing, he suggested strategic placement at youth hotspots like high schools, rec centers, and libraries to help counter systemic obstacles to access opportunities.

“I see that we do the D.C. youth employment stuff and you see the masses come down Minnesota Avenue,” Goings says. “That information needs to be down there, because some people don’t want to do the traditional, ‘Okay, I want to work. Maybe I can go into construction. Maybe I can do this.’ … They have all these other barriers that are in place.”

Sandra Seegars, of Concerned Residents Against Violence, agreed. “You could be sitting in a gold mine, but they won’t come to you,” she said. “Meet them where they are.”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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