‘Not acceptable’: DC attorney general seeks overhaul of agency tasked with rehabilitating youth offenders

The vast majority of young people committed to D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services end up getting arrested again, according to a 2022 study of the juvenile justice system in the District.

Attorney General Brian Schwalb rolled out legislation Tuesday aiming to change that.

It’s called the Recidivism Reduction, Oversight, and Accountability for DYRS Act, or the “ROAD Act,” and it comes amid growing concern in recent years over juvenile crime.

“More and more young people are committing violent offenses — carjackings, robbery, gun crimes, homicides — and they’re committing offenses at younger ages. And while it’s a relatively small number of young people who are engaged in criminal behavior, that small group is causing a disproportionate amount of harm,” Schwalb said during a Tuesday news conference.

In the most serious criminal convictions, young people can be sent to the D.C. Youth Services Center, essentially a jail-like facility, in Northeast. They can also be released to parental supervision or assigned to a bed at what’s referred to as a “shelter home.”

“From then on, DYRS is responsible for providing effective supervision and intervention to youth in their custody and reducing the likelihood that they will reoffend,” Schwalb’s office said in a news release.

But the most recent city data shows that as more young people enter D.C.’s juvenile justice system, the department has been failing in that regard.

According to the last comprehensive study from the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, nearly 93% of young people committed to the department’s care are rearrested. Nearly half are convicted of a new offense.

“Almost every single one of the kids committed to DYRS care gets arrested again. That is not acceptable,” Schwalb said. “These recidivism rates are not acceptable. Reducing recidivism is an essential part of a comprehensive public safety strategy.”

Schwalb said “swift and certain consequences” are critical in deterring crime and changing behavior in young people, and that the department isn’t getting it right.

According to the department’s own performance plan for fiscal year 2024, issued in December and cited by Schwalb on Tuesday, less than half of committed youths have a case plan within 90 days of being committed to DYRS custody.

“Three months to develop a treatment plan, much less implement one, is not acceptable,” Schwalb said. “Meaningful intervention needs to happen right away, not months down the road.”

Rectifying that is the first goal of Schwalb’s “ROAD Act.”

The legislation requires the department to quickly develop and implement an individualized rehabilitation plan for every young person committed to its custody. It also bolsters the court’s authority to step in if the department has not followed through on a young person’s rehabilitation plan.

Lastly, the law would provide for permanent, independent oversight of DYRS.

The legislation goes far beyond Mayor Muriel Bowser’s emergency declaration in November, which was made with the goal of procuring more beds at youth shelter homes around the city. A shortage of those beds was the focus of a recent court battle, with lawyers representing a teenage girl pressing for a judge to hold the city in civil contempt because of a lack of shelter beds.

In the girl’s case, she was locked up at the D.C. Youth Services Center for five days — even though she was supposed to be released to a shelter home. Eventually, she was released to home custody, but it was revealed in court the girl was routinely violating the terms of her release.

Just days before the mayor’s emergency declaration, Council member Trayon White sounded the alarm on poor living conditions in the D.C. Youth Services Center. White said the jail-like facility for D.C.’s youth doesn’t have enough hygiene products, doesn’t provide enough education and isn’t sufficiently staffed.

“There are a lot of security and safety concerns here, and I’ve only been here three hours,” White said during his November visit. “So I can imagine what’s going on at nighttime.”

Schwalb’s sweeping bill needs D.C. Council approval and the mayor’s signature to take effect.

WTOP’s Mike Murillo and Scott Gelman contributed to this report.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2024 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Thomas Robertson

Thomas Robertson is an Associate Producer and Web Writer/Editor at WTOP. After graduating in 2019 from James Madison University, Thomas moved away from Virginia for the first time in his life to cover the local government beat for a small daily newspaper in Zanesville, Ohio.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up