Note: This story was updated on July 20
The reform of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services -- which has garnered national admirers but caused quite a public debate inside the city limits – may have changed course today when Mayor Adrian Fenty replaced the agency’s interim director, Marc Schindler, with the city’s chief juvenile prosecutor, Robert Hildum, who also will serve as interim.
Most observers had believed Schindler eventually would be the permanent replacement for Vinny Schiraldi, who left in February. But as the 180-day deadline to name a permanent hire approached, a series of killings involving youths and adults involved with the juvenile justice system stirred new controversy in the midst of a tight re-election campaign for Fenty. Sources told JJ Today that Fenty believed he had to make the change.
DYRS Deputy Director David Brown and Chief of Committed Services David Muhammad have resigned, and sources tell JJ Today that other DYRS officials are considering leaving as well.
The department, formerly known as the Youth Services Administration, has long been troubled. A short reprise of recent history:
*The department averaged more than one director per year for two decades, and over that period its secure facility (Oak Hill) made its way into the conversation as the worst JJ facility in the nation, sadly not an easy list to make.
*Juvenile justice advocate Vinny Schiraldi was brought in by former Mayor Tony Williams to turn things around. Schiraldi quickly added leaders under him with national advocacy experience, including Schindler, his chief of staff, who previously has served as a Youth Law Center attorney.
*Schiraldi and Co. improved services within Oak Hill, drastically improving the education system at the facility, while designing a new facility with significantly fewer beds and a less prison-like atmosphere. The new facility, New Beginnings Youth Development Center, opened in January.
*Progress improving DYRS programs in the community, particularly the monitoring and supervision of youth offenders who were not locked up, lagged behind the developments at the secure facility, shortcomings that were often criticized by Washington Post columnist Colbert King. Recently, King’s loud editorial voice has been raised about the recent spate of killings involving juveniles under city supervision.
*Schiraldi left in February to lead New York City’s probation department, so it fell to Schindler as interim director to improve the agency’s community portfolio.
*A new arrangement featuring two community lead entities and service providers, which kicked off this year, has been counted on to help, but there are rumblings by providers that the agency-lead entity-provider trickle down system is not fully working yet.
The choice of a prosecutor to head the department makes sense politically. Hildum has also been a criminal defense attorney, so he’s seen juvenile justice from both sides of the courtroom. He was on the executive board of the city’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), so he has experience with reform.
On the other hand, he has no experience running a juvenile justice agency; he is a career lawyer. And despite his time as a defender, at least one member of the DYRS staff (speaking on the condition of anonymity) expressed worries about a prosecutor taking over:
“There is healthy structural disagreement built into the system- between DAs, public defenders, and the community - over how the juvenile justice system works. This largely reflects the reality that the public wants us to help youth succeed, and protect the public. That tension is balanced by court processes. What happened today is, one part of the system swallowed the other. This may upset the balance, and if the prosecutors go too far, the public will respond accordingly.”
One thing that is more likely to change under Hildum than under Schindler: the capacity at New Beginnings. In one meeting, a source said, Hildum raved about how pleased he was with the success of New Beginnings, and wondered aloud why there wasn’t more of it. “Meaning, more beds,” the source said.
That is certain to rankle a lot of advocates who believe the city should keep a low bed-total to force what they believe to be appropriate responses to low-level offenders. Schiraldi’s team, including Schindler, was committed to keeping the capacity at 60.
But the reality right now is, New Beginnings is overcrowded because of juveniles awaiting placement vacancies elsewhere. That scenario is tough for highly secured facilities to deal with. At a place like New Beginnings, which houses its most serious young offenders in a less secure setting than most states would contemplate, such a scenario could lead to the kind of incidents that bring the entire overhaul to a screeching halt. Something has to give there: fewer kids awaiting placement, or more space to put them.
It is unlikely that Schindler will stay on in his old job as chief of staff, but Schiraldi’s other hires to top positions are expected to remain with the department.
Hildum’s biography, courtesy of the D.C. Office of the Attorney General:
Robert Hildum brings to DYRS broad experience in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, on both the defense and prosecutorial sides. Mr. Hildum joined the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) in February 2007 in the civil division, where his first task was to develop the exit plan for the Jerry M. case [ this case was about conditions at Oak Hill that had been ongoing for more than a decade] that was adopted by the court in the fall of 2007. In September 2007, he was appointed deputy attorney general for public safety. In that position, Mr. Hildum supervised the juvenile section, responsible for prosecuting juvenile offenders. He has worked closely with the court and other juvenile justice stakeholders to implement the Juvenile Speedy Trial Act, which increased the efficiency of the juvenile justice system so that youth being detained pending trial spend less time in detention before resolution of the charges. In addition, Hildum served on the Executive Board of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (“JDAI”) with District juvenile justice stakeholders. The goals of JDAI are to reduce overcrowding in juvenile detention centers, improve key outcomes for youth, improve facility conditions and create community-based alternatives to detention.
Hildum began his legal career as an assistant attorney general in New Orleans from 1992 to 1995. During his tenure with that office he handled hundreds of juvenile cases and prosecuted the first hate crime brought to trial in Louisiana. From 1995 to 2000, he worked as a partner in the law firm of Manasseh, Hildum & Gill in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he specialized in criminal defense.
In 2000, Mr. Hildum left private practice to work for the Louisiana attorney general as an assistant attorney general in the criminal section. From 2002 to 2007, he was a senior trial attorney with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Washington, D.C., prosecuting civil enforcement actions for fraud and other violations of federal law.