DC Juvenile Justice Guide: An Idea Worth Stealing


JJ Today was recently in the audience for a presentation on the D.C. juvenile justice system's successes and challenges. A projector screen behind the speakers displayed a flow chart of how the city's juvenile justice system worked.

The thing might as well have been a blueprint for a spaceship. It was easily the most confusing chart JJ Today saw all summer, and believe me, we look at a lot of charts.

It is easy to see why so many youths and their families all around the country have such a hard time understanding the juvenile justice process. What is supposed to happen? When? What are my rights? And usually there isn't any one person whose job it is to sit down and explain how things go. Our front-page story for September, "From a Rock to a Hard Place," features a mother who pretty much had to teach herself everything about the system in order to push for her child's release from a detention center.

In Washington, the Council for Court Excellence (CCE) has attempted to address the problem with its Guide to the DC Juvenile Justice System, which breaks down each major part of JJ involvement: arrest, court matters and serving sentence (the guide is also available in Spanish). CCE is a D.C. nonprofit that takes on various projects to increase efficiency and justice in area courthouses; one of its priority areas is juvenile justice. 

"Our board of directors felt we should do something to improve the juvenile justice system,"  CCE Assistant Director, Priscilla Skillman, told  JJ Today.  "We looked at what nobody else was already doing."

The most glaring omission, Skillman said, was a "clear, descriptive guide to how it all works" for the people who are essentially clients of the JJ system: juveniles, their parents and victims.

Is this a project that should happen in every state? Absolutely. Should you expect to get it done cheaply by getting together a few times over a month and mapping out the process? Don't kid yourself.

CCE ended up spending more than a year and about $100,000 to produce the guide. It got half the money from the Alexandria, Va.-based State Justice Institute, which makes between 150 and 250 grants a year totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million. CCE matched that by pooling smaller grants from Washington-area foundations.

With Skillman coordinating, the skeleton-staffed CCE took its usual approach: it formed a project committee to identify subject areas and write content, and an advisory committee to critique that work. Everyone on the committee volunteered their time.

It took three drafts to get a document that both committees were satisfied with in terms of content and accuracy. That third draft was then "scrubbed" for complex language by a group of pro-bono lawyers, Skillman said, so that the final fourth version was 100 percent readable for anyone who read at a fifth-grade level.

At first glance, the fact that it is 50 pages made us skeptical. That's a pretty long read for a guidebook, enough to make somebody think twice about picking it up in the first place. But after reading the guide, it's hard to imagine what part could be taken out.

"That was a concern," Skillman said of the length. "We chose clarity over brevity."

The lingering question is: Will families use this? That depends a lot on how the guide is distributed. It's available for download on CCE's website, but most parents of arrested juveniles won't be rushing down to juvenile intake thinking, "I should check to see if the Council for Court Excellence has produced anything that might be of help to me!"

Skillman said a lot of the funding for the project went to printing costs so CCE could fill targeted offices with hard copies of the guide. Those include police stations, the courthouse, the prosecutor's and defender's offices, the city's child welfare agency headquarters, and other public or private organizations involved in the juvenile justice infrastructure.

Thus far, 10,000 English-version guides have been printed, along with 3,500 Spanish-language guides. About half have already been distributed.