By Michael Shank

The Youth Court of the District of Columbia, one of the only organizations dealing with juvenile delinquency in Washington, is currently on life support, writes Michael Shank, associate director of legislative affairs for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Here’s his post about why the D.C. mayor should keep it.

Keeping our kids in school, off the streets, and, ultimately, out of trouble, is a growing American problem that must be owned and addressed by federal policymakers, not just local educators.   While Opportunity Nation says that 6 million young people in America, or 15 percent of our youth, are neither in school nor working, the numbers in our nation’s capital are even higher.  Over 2,500 of the District of Columbia’s high school students are chronically absent from school, according to the Urban Institute.  That’s 20 percent of the District’s youth.  Once these youth are on the streets, it is much more likely that they’ll get into trouble.

It is not surprising that Washington D.C.’s truancy rates correlate strongly with poverty rates and neighborhood crime rates.  Schools, like the ones in my Anacostia community, have an insufficient supply of school counselors to deal with a student population traumatized by violence, abuse, and poverty. These schools are also ill equipped with the staff resources to mediate conflict or violence. And since D.C. Public Schools’ peer mediation program is nascent, and the youth rehabilitation services are often criticized for recidivism, some help is warranted.

This is why it is so important that District of Columbia’s Mayor Vince Gray, who is working on the fiscal year 2015 budget, must seize an opportunity to keep our kids out of trouble. By restoring a simple and inexpensive line item, the mayor can save an essential organization providing diversion programming to D.C.’s troubled youth.

The Youth Court of the District of Columbia, one of the only organizations dealing with juvenile delinquency in Washington, is currently on life support.  It was forced to close their doors late last year due to a crippling reduction in funding by the D.C. government.  While it was temporarily reopened this year due to some short-term stop-gap funding, there is no guarantee going forward that youth courts will be available to D.C.’s youth.

For the past five years, the majority of Youth Court’s funding came through the Justice Grants Administration for the Title II Formula Grant Program, which is administered by the District’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. However, given the lack of donors and grantors who fund programs supporting criminally inclined youth, funds were cut back substantially.

A permanent defunding of the District’s Youth Court would deal a devastating blow to many of these kids’ futures.  Over 25 percent of all juvenile arrests in D.C. are referred to Youth Court annually, which, up until recently, provided diversion programming to over 6,800 juveniles in the District.  And their approach worked: Youth Court of D.C. maintained recidivism rates of less than 11 percent, compared to the national average of 25 percent.

Remember, these are not hardened criminals we’re talking about, which is why they were diverted from the court system to Youth Court in the first place. Many of the teenagers in the District who get arrested are first-time juvenile offenders arrested for low-level misdemeanors such as simple assault for fighting in school, shoplifting, and destruction of property. A failure to properly rehabilitate and reintegrate these youth leaves them prone to repeat the offense and eventually become hardened criminals.

Is the District of Columbia ready to provide an alternative for juvenile offenses that are better suited to reducing recidivism than prosecution in the court system? It’s unclear, since Youth Court was one of only two diversion programs in the city, receiving offenders arrested for victimless crimes (stealing, vandalism, etc.).  It required participants to take accountability for their actions, admit responsibility, and learn from their mistakes without being scarred with a criminal record. The sanctions in Youth Court were binding, and those who failed to follow through with their commitments, less than 7 percent, were referred to the criminal justice system.

At a time when there is an increased need for diversion options in the District, and a surplus of tax revenue in the city in the hundreds of millions of dollars, we have a moral imperative to keep the Youth Court open. The loss of diversion programming will be devastating to many at-risk youth and their families, resulting in a huge step backwards for juvenile justice in the District of Columbia.

Without the Youth Court, the District’s teenage youth will be more likely to face criminal prosecution, instead of the more efficacious and constructive alternative dispute resolution, restorative justice and reintegration programs.  Without it, the District will also lose a lot of money, as it costs over $2,000 to process an individual through the D.C. court system, but costs less than one-quarter of that figure to process the individual through the Youth Court, or $500.

If we care about keeping kids in school, off the street, and out of the criminal justice system, cutting funds for organizations with a proven track record in providing constructive alternatives is not the way to do it.  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. Do it soon, before another kid commits a preventable crime.

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