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Inside the 'Nickles Report' on juvenile justice

Peter NicklesUPDATED 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

By Mike DeBonis  |  July 28, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Adrian Fenty , The District  
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Wow. Nickles' report is a pretty inaccurate reflection of the DYRS process. Kinda frightening that this kind of misinformation was the basis for decision-making.

Thanks for posting the document.

Posted by: 4Ward4 | July 28, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

And any effort on the part of the Gray administration to undue this mess will be fraught with problems as the next AG will probably have to sort through each of these cases.

Posted by: starclimber9 | July 28, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

The July 14 date on the revised memo doesn't make sense for two reasons. First, by that date, Council had already passed an initial vote on changes to the juvenile confidentiality laws. Second, it was only two business days later that Nickles fired the head of DYRS.

That suggests, to me at least, the earlier memo was the one that actions and decisions were based off of.

This process reflects so very poorly of the Fenty Administration. Disappointing.

Posted by: 4Ward4 | July 28, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, I must report that I lost a young man who is now incarcerated. He had a history of violence. It wasn't easy, but after investing the time in learning about him, his feelings, and why he was mad as hell, I understood the person, who he was, and where he wanted to go in the future, which certainly wasn't prison.

As long I I kept him working with me or the other responsible adults (preferably strong males), assigned to demanding job assignments, he was fine. He went from being homeless, no job, and numerous other challenges to having a job, small apartment, a girlfriend, used but clean furniture, and a sense of pride as well as accomplishment.

There is no doubt in my mind that this young man, is capable of the violence for which he is not incarcerated. But, there is also no doubt in my mind that he is also capable of being a productive member of society.

I let him down because I did not keep enough jobs for him and that's the key. We will have less violence, and less resources will be required if we can laser-focus on job creation (i.e. finding out what businesses need help doing things).

We also have to provide supportive, but STRICT supervision. We have to be STRONG mentors, and there needs to be STRONG support from ALL members of the community at all levels of government.

With a coordinated and sustained effort, these youth can be turned around. The anger comes when they feel they have been mistreated, and are powerless to do anything about it. In the face of instances like this, they will "...take from those that have".

The kids are smart, and they read in the paper about the millions and billions of dollars flowing to their local government but they often wonder when they will get an opportunity to access any of these resources.

The walk past the new buildings going up, and they usually don't see anyone they know working there. It frustrates them, and this leads to anger, remaining bottled up, internalized that leads to violence.

I am not justifying their behavior - it clearly is wrong. We either deal with them and help them now. Or we can deal with them later. It's better if we engage them while they're young. It's easier to engage them if you can relate to any experiences they have culturally. You can briefly get the attention of the toughest and most hardest youth, when you have an opportunity for them to get paid. You just have to deliver. That's my humble opinion.

Posted by: jobforce | July 29, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

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