Inside the 'Nickles Report' on juvenile justice
UPDATED 4:30 P.M.
Examiner reporter Freeman Klopott today published details from a review of the District's juvenile-justice agency. On Saturday, Post columnist Colby King also published details from the report. Both indicate, no surprise, serious problems with how the city deals with violent youth.
The Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services has been dealing with a series of violent crimes committed by and to the juvenile offenders it's charged with handling. The report was intended to look at those incidents -- including the March South Capitol Street massacre -- and analyze how they happened.
The report's impact has been significant. Mayor Adrian Fenty had been a steadfast supporter of DYRS Director Vincent Schiraldi and the "Missouri model" reforms he charted over his five-plus years at the agency. Then, suddenly, he wasn't. Last week, he fired Schiraldi's anointed successor and installed a top deputy from Attorney General Peter Nickles' office.
No doubt that DYRS has to take a harder line on absconded youth and look seriously at how it deals with its most violent offenders. It's an issue the mayor, the council, and the agency itself have all been quite mindful of -- especially in this campaign season. But the concern is how the Fenty administration -- specifically, Nickles -- went about the whole thing.
As the Post's Henri Cauvin reported after the leadership shakeup, the "privileged and confidential" report has been "cited repeatedly by Nickles in his bid to make changes at the department."
So what exactly is this "Nickles Report"?
The report I've obtained [PDF], dated May 20, is not so much an investigative report with findings, but a six-page memo that makes "general observations" about the city's youth justice apparatus before delivering more than a dozen recommendations. It's entirely possible that a more detailed report has been completed in the meantime, but DYRS officials raised serious questions about the inquiry in an undated response [PDF] to the May 20 document. For instance: Because the OAG staffers tasked with investigating the agency didn't know how to use the DYRS computer system, the report based some of its recommendations on mistaken findings.
But the more questionable aspect of the study isn't its length or thoroughness or the undue secrecy surrounding it so much as who Nickles chose to conduct it. Three internal OAG lawyers did the report, led by Deputy AG Robert Hildum, who at the time was in charge of prosecuting youth offenders. He's now the agency's interim director.
That point bears repeating: The man charged by Nickles with assessing how DYRS deals with youth offenders is that same man who was charged with prosecuting those offenders. And now that he's leading the agency, he's in the position of being able to direct the treatment of those youth.
The DYRS response puts it this way: "Prosecutors are charged with representing a certain aspect of the community's needs in public safety. There is dynamic tension between that role and the role of an objective and scientific reviewer of all the evidence on how our practices and procedures work in the aggregate."
Here would be the analogous situation in the adult system: The U.S. attorney's office prosecutes a thief, then, after the judge or jury finds the thief guilty, it's the U.S. attorney -- not the judge or jury -- who gets to decide the sentence.
Nickles could have engaged Inspector General Charles Willoughby or, as is the fashion these days, turned to one of his many friends in the District's white-shoe legal community. But he didn't -- he chose the guy who, coincidentally or not, would later be put in charge of punishing/rehabilitating the youth he once prosecuted.
Whether or not the change was justified, it's a profound shift for a crucial arm of city government, and it appears to be based on a document with significant flaws.
Nickles is out of the office this week, and so has not been returning calls with his usual speed. When he gets back to me, I will update.
UPDATE, 4:30 P.M.: Nickles phones to tell me that the May 20 report is indeed "very, very, very old." He also disputes any characterization that Hildum played the lead role in drafting that memo -- the conclusions were his own, Nickles says.
More to the point: The Fenty administration today released a final version of the report [PDF], dated July 15 -- four days before Hildum was named DYRS head. A cursory reading shows it to be a more measured, better reasoned, better substantiated version of the preliminary memo. Hildum's name is nary to be found. Some of the recommendations are no-brainers -- do a comprehensive study on juvenile recidivism, provide more transparency on juvenile records, manage and oversee agency caseworkers better.
One in particular might be more controversial: creating as many as 50 more "secure beds" to address an "overcrowding problem" at the New Beginnings Youth Center.
Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
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