D.C. Juvenile Justice Director Schiraldi to Lead NYC Probation

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In early 2009, many in the JJ world thought there would be talk of Vincent Schiraldi taking a new job around this time. But not in another city.

Schiraldi, director of D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services since 2004, pushed early and with national support to be President Barack Obama’s administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, but ultimately the job was not in the cards. Instead, he will return next year to his birthplace, New York City, to become the city’s probation commissioner.

“While I’m excited to take on a new challenge, I’m also proud of the agency we’ve built together and I am sad to be leaving so many of you whom I’ve come to know and respect over the years,” Schiraldi said in a memo to his staff yesterday.

Schiraldi’s new post places him in charge of New York City’s entire probation caseload, juvenile and adult, which marks a return to the adult side of justice for Schiraldi. He co-founded the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in 1985, and later created the Justice Policy Institute.

Schiraldi flirted with the idea of leaving for one state JJ agency during the past five years. But the commitment to finishing the Oak Hill closure, plus an eye on the OJJDP job, kept him in Washington.

“New York has a lot of problems with its juvenile system right now,” Schiraldi said of his new job, which he will start Feb. 1. But he also said he looks forward to manning an office with some stability.

“When I got here, everything was on fire,” he recalled of his first year at DYRS. Schiraldi was the 20th DYRS director since 1986, the year the agency settled on a court-supervised improvement plan stemming from a lawsuit.

There were four DYRS directors in the nine months before Schiraldi arrived. “It was crazy here,” he said. “It’s not gonna be crazy there.”

There was a lot of support among national reform-minded advocates for Schiraldi to lead OJJDP. The most vocal among them were Bart Lubow, head of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and former Florida juvenile judge Frank Orlando, who also founded residential and community program provider Associated Marine Institutes (AMI).

Schiraldi had his backers in Washington as well. He was one of the few agency leaders left over from the tenure of Mayor Anthony Williams who appeared to have the full support of Mayor Adrian Fenty. It always seemed that the chairman of the human services committee for the D.C. City Council, Tommy Wells, supported Schiraldi’s end game, even when he called him to the carpet for various mistakes. 

He also garnered significant enemies in the city, including law enforcement representatives and a Washington Post columnist.

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) D.C. Lodge 1, which includes DYRS among its member agencies, has lambasted Schiraldi and the city for closing its old juvenile secure facility (Oak Hill) in favor of a smaller, less-secure one (New Beginnings Youth Center). The correctional officers union for New Beginnings has done the same.

“D.C. is now safer, and New York is a little less safe,” FOP chairman Kristopher Baumann told the Washington Post yesterday. “He was absolutely open about his belief that juvenile offenders and violent juvenile offenders needed to be coddled.”

Colby King, a longtime Post opiner, has been relentlessly critical of DYRS’ commitment to locking up only a small amount of juveniles and deal with most youths committed to the agency in community programs. In a series of Saturday edition columns that has spanned two years now, King has used sources within DYRS and leaked confidential information to describe individual cases of juveniles who were killed while in DYRS custody, or were accused of committing homicide while still in custody.

“These youth need so much more” than community programs and monitors, King wrote in a Nov. 21 column entitled Safety Without a Net. “They need individualized, professional and sustained support in a safe setting…They deserve to be treated as more than fodder for an ideologically driven social policy.”

There is little question Schiraldi’s tenure has marked a sea change for juveniles in post-adjudication lockup. He inherited Oak Hill, which by all accounts was one of the worst juvenile facilities in the nation. Staff was assaulted, as were its young wards. The legally-mandated school within Oak Hill’s walls was largely manned by the dregs of the public school teacher pool, those who could not quite be fired but who were too bad at their jobs to warrant a classroom anywhere else.

Today, a brand new facility exists. Inside of it is the Maya Angelou Academy, a charter school operated in partnership by DYRS and the See Forever Foundation. There has been some debate on the size and security of the New Beginnings Center, but nobody questions the increased quality of the programs within its walls.

Community programs and supervision have improved as well. Schiraldi junked most of the community program contracts, split the city into two regions, and had community groups help design services for offenders in community custody. He brought in programs such as Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), a well-known provider of community programs for juveniles that is based in Harrisburg, Pa., to assist in that. The newly constituted format, called Lead Entity Service Coalitions, became official Oct. 1 and will have $5.6 million to spend on services this year.

Under Schiraldi, DYRS also increased the requirements of DYRS staff responsible for checking in with DYRS wards in the community, which enabled DYRS to fire people that weren’t doing the job and hire new community supervisors who would.

But King’s columns have painted a very public picture of youths sent back home with the promise of monitoring and rehabilitative programs, only to end up killing or being killed. If DYRS cannot start to counter King’s selective case critiques with some hard evidence that community services are getting better, the calls to lock up more youths will get louder. And Schiraldi’s most powerful defender, Fenty, faces a tough re-election next year.

One DYRS senior staffer told JJ Today a year ago that when Schiraldi brought his team in, it was clear that there were two very different facets of DYRS in need of reform -- the secure facility and the community programs and supervision -- but the agency only had enough money and resources to fix one at a time. Getting away from Oak Hill got top priority.

Schiraldi admits as much. “When a facility is under a lawsuit, they really do suck up attention,” he said. “It’s easy to make community programs play second fiddle, even for me, and I’m totally a community guy. But Oak Hill was so bad, and the lawsuit put so much pressure on it, a lot of time when to that and not case management and community program reform

The opening of New Beginnings this year, five years into Schiraldi’s leadership, brings some closure to the first focal point of reform. It will be somebody else tasked with whatever comes next. Expect Schiraldi to recommend someone from his own staff to replace him.

Whoever it is, the new director will have two advantages. First, it is likely that this will be the year DYRS gets out from under the lawsuit that has hung over its head for decades. The second advantage is that his or her name will not be Vinnie Schiraldi.

The latter advantage may give a successor a better chance than he at coming to the table with “unions and other key stakeholders,” said Schiraldi.

“I had to move fast” on making changes, he said. “That bent some noses out of shape. But I wasn’t looking to be a 20-year man; I wasn’t even looking to be a five-year man.”

  • Jeffrey Butts

    Vinny proved that it is still possible to tackle the problems of a deeply troubled public agency and to set it back on a positive course, but it’s too bad that system reformers like him have to sacrifice so much of themselves and have to put up with so much **** just to do their jobs. Even with his talents, Vinny couldn’t have had his successes by himself. When future reformers are attacked by those with an obvious interest in stopping reform, the rest of us need to step up and help.