Inside Oak Hill, Washington, D.C.’s juvenile corrections facility in suburban Maryland, harsh punishment is out and therapy is in. Dingy cellblocks are out; they now have carpeting and cushioned furniture, says the Washington Post. Striking an officer, smoking marijuana, or destroying property no longer gets a young offender thrown into a dark cell. Now, they call a meeting. It’s part of an evolving, controversial effort to deter young delinquents from becoming career criminals by keeping fewer behind bars and surrounding the rest with counselors, drug rehabilitation, and social workers at their homes to strengthen broken families.
The changes are the work of Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services since 2005. “You have got to lock up as few as possible,” he said. “The ones you do lock up, you have got to treat them in a way that can turn their lives around and not create the self-concept that the next stop is [jail or prison].” Fierce opposition has come from law enforcement and local residents who feel endangered by the young robbers and thieves Schiraldi has let out on probation. Critics point to his failures: An average of six youths a year killed in street violence while under his care (about the same as before he arrived) and an embarrassing escape of one youth from Schiraldi’s house during a party. The head of the local Fraternal Order of Police accused the city of adopting a “hug and release” policy. During Schiraldi’s tenure, the number of youths assigned to the agency has risen 73 percent, from 420 to 727. There has been a steep decline in runaways and a 6 percent drop in recidivism measured within a year of release.