Monday, August 19, 2013

A Shred of Light into the District of Columbia’s Juvenile Justice System

The H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, Superior Court of the District of Columbia
“The reformers who championed the establishment of juvenile courts in the United States envisioned a system in which youthful law violators would receive treatment and other forms of rehabilitation and thereby become productive members of society without forever being tarnished by criminal records as a result of youthful indiscretions.”[1]  This idea has unfortunately largely remained in the abstract; instead, many juvenile offenders face high recidivism rates throughout the United States.  Specifically, “an average of fifty-five percent of youth released from state custody in the United States are rearrested within a year, and an average of twenty-five percent are re-incarcerated in adult or juvenile custody within the same period.”

Though the law has made the distinction between juveniles and adults in the criminal justice system by recognizing different needs for juveniles, thus, separate court systems; a host of problems still remain surrounding how to effectively rehabilitate juveniles so they do not ultimately fall in the path of the adult criminal justice system.[2]  “A defining characteristic of the adult criminal justice system is that it is unconcerned with why an accused person has committed a crime, and instead is concerned only with whether he has.”[3]  The adult criminal justice system focuses on punishing offenders for their crimes through confinement, fines, or imposing other conditions on a defendant.  The juvenile system, on the other hand, is meant to focus on the rehabilitation of offenders, preparing them to become a productive member of society.  This, however, has not been the case – most committed juveniles are punished as opposed to rehabilitated.

The District of Columbia’s Juvenile Detention Centers are run under the supervision of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (“DYRS”).  Prompted by the well-known case, District of Columbia v. Jerry M., the District entered into a consent decree, which required virtually a complete reform of the current juvenile system.[4]  The consent decree in Jerry M. mandated, among other things, educational instruction at each juvenile detention center.  Following the lawsuit, in 2004 DYRS created the Youth Service Center (“YSC”), which had eighty-eight beds used for pre-adjudicated delinquent juveniles.   YSC houses only pre-adjudication juveniles who have not yet received a disposition in their case.  In rare circumstances YSC also houses the high-risk adjudicated and committed juveniles.  

All juveniles are released from YSC within a maximum of thirty days, which makes the turnover rate among juveniles extraordinary.  After each juvenile is adjudicated, he or she is ordered to do one of four things: (1) attend a residential facility across the country; (2) attend a group home; (3) return home; or (4) be committed to New Beginnings (the local juvenile detention center).  Juveniles housed at YSC are only there for a short period of time, a small number of juveniles identified as “high-risk” are committed there; and all of their financial support comes from the government.  There are, however, many areas in which YSC can be improved, as evidenced through general juvenile justice research and discussed briefly below.

  • Post-Adjudicatory Representation:  An unfortunate fact with any juvenile that enters the juvenile justice system is that he or she is usually deprived of any stability.  The people in their lives come and go, their schools often change after getting suspended or expelled, and as such, there is no fluidity or consistency throughout their lives.  Due to this ongoing problem, adding a stable variable, even if it were just an attorney, would likely make a drastic difference in a child’s life.   Though this would likely not apply to juveniles housed at YSC, given that they are all awaiting disposition and therefore, have attorneys; maintaining stability throughout a child’s route through the juvenile justice system is imperative. 
  •  Require Collaboration Between District of Columbia Public Schools and Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services:  In her law review article, Paige Wallace suggests entering the “school to prison pipeline” and targeting specific leverage points, which would likely reduce the number of juvenile offenders.  The author identified six major “leverage areas”: (1) school safety; (2) truancy; (3) mental health services; (4) special education; (5) discipline policies; and (6) drop-out drug prevention.  Though these areas definitely need a significant amount of improvement, they would undoubtedly improve student achievement and in turn, likely reduce the number of juvenile offenders being housed in YSC and New Beginnings.  Though this novel idea should be vehemently advocated for, the feasibility of accomplishing each area in an already failing public school system would be nothing short of difficult.    
  • Ensure Academic Credit for Incarcerated Juveniles:  Perhaps most importantly, schools needs to accept the academic credit that students earn while they are in juvenile detention.  Given that the curriculum mirrors that of what is being taught in public schools pre-adjudicated juveniles who are attending class in a different building should receive credit for the time they are there. 
  • Continue Supporting outside Non-Profit Agencies: The dedication of outside volunteers, especially through a non-profit called the National Youth Justice Alliance (“NYJA”), has allowed YSC to maintain a Law Academy since 2006.  NYJA is an intensive course that takes place three to four evenings (usually Friday through Sunday) at YSC; it basically teaches students the “constitution in a nutshell.”  The mission of NYJA is to “provide students with the ability to understand the circumstances that surround them and will equip them with the knowledge and confidence to stand up for themselves in the courtroom.  Specifically, the Academy seeks to prepare students to interact proactively with their attorneys, and to understand courtroom terminology and players.”[5]  Most juvenile clients “traditionally lack legal voice”; this is something the founders of NYJA try to instill in each student at YSC.[6]

Overall, it is clear the District of Columbia has made significant progress with its juvenile justice system since the seminal case of Jerry M., which alerted the District to the many problems encompassing juvenile detention. What is also clear, however, is that much work remains.  Though there has been little written and published about YSC, there is much to say.

Megan Petry   
Editor-in-Chief, Criminal Law Brief       

Image by Agnostic Preachers Kid (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

[1]  District of Columbia v. Jerry M., 571 A.2d 178, 179 (D.C. Ct. App. 1990) (citing In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 15, 18 (1966)). 
[2]  See Megan F. Chancey, Keeping the Promise of Gault: Requiring Post-Adjudicatory Juvenile Defenders, 19 Geo. J. Poverty Law & Pol’y 351 (2012). 
[3]  Id. (citing Julian Mack, The Juvenile Court, 23 Harv. L. Rev. at 107 (emphasis in original). 
[4]  See District of Columbia v. Jerry M., 571 A.2d 178 (D.C. Ct. App. 1990). 
[5]  Nat’l Youth Justice Alliance, Mission Statement.
[6]  The National Youth Justice Alliance non-profit was founded by three WCL alums: Nisha Thakker (who continues to facilitate the organization today); Andrew Ferguson; and Professor Maryam Ahranjani.


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