A Critic Joins the System

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After 20 years of slugging it out with police, prosecutors and bureaucrats, juvenile justice reformer Vincent Schiraldi has joined their ranks. Vince Schiraldi

“If you're going to meaningfully fix juvenile justice in America, you’ve got to go inside,” says Schiraldi, 46, after being nominated by Washington Mayor Anthony Williams (D) last month to head the city’s troubled juvenile justice system.

The married father of two teenagers has been trying to improve juvenile justice for more than a decade. A graduate of the State University of New York at Binghamton, Schiraldi went to work in 1980 for the New York State Division for Youth as a live-in house parent at a group home for delinquent boys. It was there, he says, that he first witnessed institutional “cynicism” among youth workers in the form of negative case management styles and overzealous security. “Books were considered contraband and confiscated,” he recalls.

Disillusioned, he quit. He soon got approval from Jerome Williams, founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), to open a regional office in San Francisco.

In 1985, he and Dan Macallair co-founded the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), which later absorbed the NCIA office Schiraldi had opened. CJCJ focused primarily on reducing juvenile incarceration through technical assistance and model programs in cities such as Washington.

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) was born in 1997 as a policy development and research arm of CJCJ. Five years later, JPI split off on its own. Schiraldi ran JPI in Washington, while Macallair ran CJCJ in California.

JPI’s focus has included commissioning studies and serving as a quotable think tank, with a stated goal of “ending society’s reliance on incarceration.” As executive director, Schiraldi has criticized and offered alternatives to such practices as disproportionate minority confinement, lengthy jail stays and trying children as adults.

Quick to answer his phone (usually after one ring) in a voice remarkably similar to that of comedian Jon Lovitz, Schiraldi is always ready with statistics and studies for congressional hearings, youth-related conferences and journalists on deadline. Why go from the comfort of critiquing to actually running a government agency?

“It’s a miracle they would hire me,” Schiraldi says. “I’ve never run a large bureaucracy.” Mindful of his image as a bureaucrat-hating dragon slayer, he says he never considered the agencies he battled over the years to be “complete enemies.” Priding himself on being a “community worker,” Schiraldi says he will bring a sense of “urgency and alarm” to blow out the “institutional lethargy and indifference” that hobbles juvenile justice agencies nationwide.

Vinny’s View

Alarm is the right word for the Washington juvenile justice system and its Oak Hill juvenile jail – so plagued with mismanagement and allegations of inmate abuse that the agency was nearly placed under court receivership last year. A special arbiter has been appointed to deal with the class-action lawsuit against the city over conditions at Oak Hill. Some 400 youngsters come under the agency’s domain.

Schiraldi will be the first director of the city’s new Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which replaces the agency that oversaw Oak Hill. If confirmed by the city council, Schiraldi will earn $140,000 a year, and leap from overseeing a $1 million budget and seven staffers at JPI to a $61 million budget and a staff of 592 with the city.

“A couple of zeros may be added [to the budget], but it’s still the same brain making the same decisions on how to reduce recidivism and improve resident treatment,” he says.

Macallair, whose CJCJ maintains offices in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., says Schiraldi “brings a passion for fixing the system to his job that separates him from someone with a conventional outlook.”

That outlook began taking shape 30 years ago. Back in 1970s Brooklyn, N.Y., the adolescent Schiraldi and his homeboys kept busy with pranks and brushes with the law that included drinking on the street and minor vandalism.

“But the Italian and Polish police didn’t arrest us, unless we were doing something really bad,” recalls Schiraldi. “They talked to us, then shooed us away.”

He says police rarely exhibit such concern and helpfulness when dealing with minority youth. In Washington, he notes, “96 percent [of the juveniles in detention] are African American and 1 percent to 4 percent are Latino. … The excellence of the [D.C.] juvenile system kicks into gear when a white kid is arrested. They are rarely incarcerated, and they are given the attention they deserve.”

“He’s way, way out of the box,” says Bart Lubow, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Program for High Risk Youth and Their Families. “Vinny has spent his career battling broken systems. I applaud the District for their boldness in selecting him.”