By Michael Shank and Erica Marshall
WASHINGTON, February 12, 2014 —This April, when the District of Columbia begins its public debate over the draft budget for fiscal year 2015, there is an opportunity to give many of the District’s youth a second chance on life – literally. All the D.C. government must do to contribute constructively to the future of the District’s youth is to fully restore funding to a successful youth program that was recently forced to shut its doors.
Here’s what happened. One of the primary organizations working on alternative ways to deal with juvenile delinquency in Washington – the Youth Court of the District of Columbia — was forced to close its doors late last year due to a crippling reduction in funding by the D.C. government, which came after the elimination of federal grants administered by the D.C. Justice Grants Administration.
Before it had to shut down, Youth Court filled a critical role in D.C.’s juvenile justice system. It acted as a pre-petition diversion program for first-time non-violent juvenile offenders. This means that children aged 12-17 who were arrested for low-level misdemeanors such as fighting in school, shoplifting, and destruction of property, were referred out of the criminal justice system to appear before a jury of their peers for unconventional peer-imposed sentencing.
The sentences often required community service, participation in the Youth Court mentorship program, participation as a juror with the program, apologies to the victim and written essays on why the offender’s behavior was wrong. The youth were referred to YCDC by the Metropolitan Police Department or the Attorney General’s office under D.C.’s diversion statute.
Importantly, the kids referred to Youth Court never entered the traditional juvenile justice system. They didn’t have to appear before a judge, they weren’t put in the ranks among children charged with more serious crimes, they weren’t taken out of their homes and they weren’t assigned a probation officer. This means they finished their sentence without the crippling mind shift into thinking of themselves as a “criminal.” Rather, they left having worked with a mentor to obtain programming designed to help them make better decisions in the future.
Youth Court of D.C. boasted recidivism rates of less than 11 percent compared to the national average of 25 percent. It also brought cost savings to the City on a per-case basis: $500 to process a case in Youth Court verses $2,300 to process an individual through the D.C. court system. In fact, over 25 percent of all juvenile arrests in D.C. were referred to Youth Court annually, which once provided diversion programming to over 6,800 juveniles in the District.
Nevertheless, since October 1, 2013, Youth Court’s doors have been shuttered. This week, the Mayor’s Office issued $75,000 in funding to allow Youth Court to temporarily reopen. While the temporary funding will allow Youth Court to reopen for the short term, this is not enough to save this critical organization. This pledge does not fund Youth Court of D.C. through the remainder of the 2014 fiscal year (which ends September 30, 2014) and certainly will not be long enough for many of the referred juveniles to even complete their sentences. When this limited funding runs out, Youth Court of D.C. will be forced to shutter its doors once again.
The Mayor’s office has a surplus, meaning that its decision to restrict funding from this organization is not only strategically ill-conceived, as it invariably invites more youth to pursue a path of violence and crime, it is morally unjustifiable. Moreover, unless Mayor Gray and the District of Columbia take action, arrested children, ages 12-17, will be more likely to face criminal prosecution (instead of the more efficacious and constructive alternative dispute resolution and reintegration programs that kept many kids back in school, off the streets and out of the criminal justice system).
Saving this organization makes sense fiscally and is critical to the youth of D.C. We can simultaneously hold juvenile offenders accountable while giving them the tools they need to get back on track. This April, Mayor Gray and the D.C. Justice Grants Administration need to restore funding to the Youth Court of the District of Columbia and make it a permanent line item on the budget. The future of our youth and the safety our District depends on it.