Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
before the
DC Council Committee on Recreation and Youth Affairs
Hearing on Bill 23-291, The Detained Youth Access to the Juvenile Services Program Amendment Act of 2019
Thursday, October 17, 2019
Room 120
by
Nassim Moshiree, Policy Director

My name is Nassim Moshiree and I am the Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC). I present the following testimony on behalf of our more than 14,000 members in the District.

The ACLU-DC is committed to working to reverse the tide of over-incarceration, safeguard fundamental liberties, eliminate racial disparities, and advocate for sensible, evidence-based criminal justice reforms.

We support in a public-health approach to juvenile justice that centers the needs of our children for affordable housing, healthy foods, quality education, and meaningful access to healthcare, including trauma-informed counseling.

The ACLU also believes that juvenile justice reform requires a reexamination of our laws, policies, and police practices that lead to systems involvement for too many DC youth. Finally, we support a juvenile justice system that is the least restrictive possible, and one in which youth have meaningful legal representation throughout, including while in custody, with regular oversight to ensure that children in custody remain safe and have access to all appropriate service to aid in their speedy release.

Today, I am pleased to be testifying in support of Bill 23-291 “The Detained Youth Access to the Juvenile Services Program Amendment Act of 2019.”

The Juvenile Services Program (JSP) has existed in the District since 1982. What began as the result of a DC Council mandate to address systemic failures in how the DC government at the time was treating youth in detention has since continued under a cooperative relationship between DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia, in recognition that the program addresses an important need for youth held in detention.

JSP ensures that DC youth held in secure DYRS facilities have meaningful access to legal services, including education about their legal rights and responsibilities, representation in disciplinary and placement hearings, and assistance filing complaints relating to the conditions of their confinement.

JSP is an important model for what low-barrier access to legal services should look like in any detention setting. JSP personnel can access and observe conditions in housing units and have confidential communications with residents of detention facilities in order to both build trust and therefore learn of issues that might otherwise remain unaddressed without advocacy or additional resources, including trauma-informed services. Importantly, JSP helps youth navigate the many confusing and stressful parts of their cases and confinement, helping to facilitate communications between youth and court-appointed attorneys, and to help youth avoid taking actions that could jeopardize their release into less restrictive settings.

The fact that this program serves youth as young as twelve makes it particularly important to protect its future. On a national scale, most recently with the crisis of family and child detention at our borders, we’ve witnessed how critical it is for children not just to have access to lawyers but to have advocates on site, and the harms that befall children when such protections don’t exist1.

The JSP program has existed for thirty-seven years already, demonstrating the District’s commitment to preventing such harms and improving outcomes for its children in detention. And while it’s laudable that DYRS currently has leadership that supports this important program, the current MOA expires in January of 2020. Bill 23-91 will remove any uncertainties about the program’s future and ensure that it will be available to youth in custody regardless of who sits at the head of the agency, which is how good public policy should operate.

In the past decade, positive reforms have led to fewer youth held in detention, and a greater focus on evidence-based diversion and restorative justice programs have successfully prevented youth from entering the system at all. However, there is still much work to be done to prevent unnecessary detention and address the root causes of why DC children are being criminalized in the first place2.

The ACLU-DC is committed to working with this Council and community stakeholders to identify and promote policy and legislative changes to end the over-incarceration of children and provide them with the tools they need to grow into health and productive adults.

The Public Defender Service’s JSP program is an important piece of this. We commend the nine Councilmembers, including all members of this Committee, who have co-introduced this important legislation to help protect critical legal services for DC youth who are in custody, and we look forward to its speedy passage by the DC Council.

[1] https://time.com/5611521/lawyers-inhumane-conditions-border-dentention/

[2] The report “Beyond the Walls” highlights some of these troubling trends, namely that consistent with national trends, the District of Columbia is also experiencing a significant rise in girls’ involvement with the juvenile justice system. Report available at http://rights4girls.org/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2018/03/BeyondTheWalls-Final.pdf

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