Official Works To Bring Hope To The Lawless

Vincent Schiraldi is the newly-tapped head of the New York City Department of Probation. Schiraldi's noted work to reform both the criminal justice system and the troubled men and women who pass through it has drawn both praise and concern. He explains his philosophy of reform and his passion for perfecting services offered to those considered menaces to society.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we try to learn from those who have made an impact through their work. Today, a name well known in the nation's capital among those who work with troubled youth. He's now heading to New York. Since 2005, Vincent Schiraldi has served as the Director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. In that role he's been heralded for focusing on improving the education and living conditions of youth in detention.

But he's also been excoriated by others for coddling violent criminals. Now, he's taking his strategies to New York where he will lead the New York City Department of Probation and he's here with us now in our Washington D.C. studios. Vinny, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. VINCENT SCHIRALDI (Juvenile Justice Reformer): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now we have actually known each other for a long time. We met when you were the head of something called the Justice Policy Institute.

Mr. SCHIRALDI: That's right. I was one of those outside advocates who was always trying to make news. Now I'm sort of an inside bureaucrat trying to run from the news.

MARTIN: But what underlies your philosophy? I mean part of your - the reason why you did that work and then took this government position was because there were certain ideas that you wanted to see play out. So I guess I'd like to understand what informs your idea of what criminal justice should be.

Mr. SCHIRALDI: Growing up in Brooklyn, a lot of my friends got in trouble with the law. And I always found that there were two things that were true about them if they got locked up. One was they came back out worse - meaner, tougher, more hardened. And the other was we all looked up to them more. So I don't know what society was trying to do - didn't seem like it was working to me. And so, you know, then I got my first job just working in a group home as a live-in house parent. Five days a week I slept in the group home with the kids and I just loved it.

I'd be lying if I said it was altruistic purposes. I loved working with the kids. I found that they were really open to caring adults. So many that are like lost puppies, in some respects, because nobody was paying attention to them. They had lousy homes and, you know, things were tough in. And they didn't get any kind of self-esteem building. And when you built on their strengths, a lot of them really, really respond to it and the more they did good, the less they did bad.

MARTIN: The philosophy of dealing with youths who've committed crime seems to have changed a lot in recent years. On the one hand, a lot of people have taken an academic interest in the subject. On the other hand incarceration policies have actually gotten tougher on youth over the course of time. I'm just wondering why you think that is.

Mr. SCHIRALDI: Well, the '90s were a tough decade. They really were. People were very afraid of crime. There actually was a spike in crime. So there was something real to be afraid about and then as so often happens, both the media coverage and public perception trails the reality.

So as crime was dropping, the media was still covering it more and people still thought it was going up. But what happened at the beginning of 2000, states started to reduce the number of kids they were locking up. And I think that happened because some of the science behind it started to catch up with the public policymaking and it was just less frenetic. If you notice, in the last two presidential elections, crime wasn't even an issue. So people could do the right thing.

MARTIN: And when you say the right thing, what do you mean? What are the pillars of your philosophy about criminal justice, particularly where youth are concerned? What is the right thing in your view?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: One is good, data-driven screening - what corresponds with future criminality? And if the kid's got it, you lock him up; if he doesn't, you don't. The other is good, data-driven programming. Some programs are now what they call evidence-based. They've been studied so much by the Justice Department that they are willing to put that label on it. And believe me, the Justice Department don't do that easy. Right? They have to go through a lot of rigorous tests.

And then some are promising approaches which we think will work, and the studies so far as showing good signs. So you screen them good, you put them in good programs, and then for the ones that you do need to confine in secure custody, you make it decent and as rehabilitative as you possibly can.

MARTIN: When you talk about data-driven screening, how is that any different than profiling? What do you mean by that?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: Basically it's strengths and needs. I'm going to look at your prior record, I'm going to look at your current offense behavior; but I'm also going to look at what kind of needs you have, and I'm going to set that up on a matrix. It's what we do in D.C. now. We then hand it to a youth family teen meeting - where the young person, his family, anybody they want to bring to that meeting and then our folks - psychologists, you know, probations officers, folks like that - all sit around the table and say all right, what kind of programs do we have for this young person, and they make a decision.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Vinnie Schiraldi. He has served as the director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services since 2005. He's moving on at the end of this year. He's heading to New York, where he'll lead the Department of Probation.

And I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that your record here is viewed through two very different lenses. What's interesting is that the Washington Post did an editorial when you announced your resignation, giving both of those perspectives.

On the one hand, they're saying dramatic improvements occurred on your watch. Instead of warehousing juveniles in terrible conditions, the district now offers unique programs both for education and rehabilitation in a new, state-of-the-art facility. The department reports that the recidivism rate is down, and so are escapes.

But one of the Post's columnists, Colbert King(ph) has written some very tough pieces about the work of your department and yourself. One of the things that they talk about is the fact that you had a Shakespeare acting troupe over to your home for a barbecue, and in the middle of that barbecue at your own house, a 17-year-old juvenile offender walked away, and some people say that that's indicative of the weaknesses of your tenure.

Yes, that's great you want to give these kids a chance, but on the other hand, some of these kids, you give them inch, they'll take a yard. What do you say about that?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: Well, you know, I think the data for what we're doing sort of speaks for itself. I mean, for the facility we ran, which was a dungeon and a nightmare by everybody's standards. It was called Oak Hill, where rats and cockroaches used to crawl on the kids, and rooms were freezing cold or boiling hot, where it was actually easier to get drugs than on the streets of D.C. What we did was we turned it around and reformed it. And if you look at 2005, versus our most recent recidivism data, 2007, re-arrests from those kids has dropped by 47 percent, right?

So yes, there were definitely things I did, like having a barbecue at my home which by the way, I thought was a cool thing and then one kid ran away, and that kid was already on home-pass status. So he could have run away from home that weekend if he wanted to.

MARTIN: That's kind of like the White House state dinner and the Salahis, nice evening for 400 people, two people get all the headlines.

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: And that's the story. But I knew coming into this that I was the 19th director of this department in 19 years, and they all went down the same way. As soon as they started to make reforms, people would leak stuff to the media, a bunch of bad articles would get written, they'd be out the door. And I really made an effort to shore up my support with the mayor and the council and to work really hard on data collection so I could show, when I knew individual cases would come up, that we were doing well, and I was able to get support all the way through.

I think I'm the only director of those 19 that didn't get taken out in a body bag. I left on my own steam.

MARTIN: What do you mean in a body bag?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: They all got fired.

MARTIN: Fired. Well, body bag actually means...

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm sorry. I was being euphemistic.

MARTIN: Okay. So who do you think is leaking those stories?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: In my case, who was behind it was the staff, some of whom were terrific folks, but some of them really were doing a lousy job. And we started firing people, holding them accountable, writing them up, people who had never been written up in their whole careers.

So you start going after people's livelihood, and whether they're good employees or bad employees, they're going to come right back after you.

MARTIN: What do you think it takes to be good at a job like yours?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: I think the main thing is you've got to do the job like you don't want the job. If you do the job looking over your shoulder, being cautious and, you know, then you flinch every time it comes time to do something, you'll never get it done.

So would I have that barbecue again? I'm not sure I would, but would I treat kids like real human beings? Absolutely. I would do that over and over and over again.

MARTIN: What do you hope to accomplish in New York?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: I don't know if you saw, but recently the front page in the New York Times reported on a report by the governor's task force that showed that the state juvenile justice system in New York is in complete disarray, and they made a large number of recommendations about how the county should take back many of the services for these juveniles.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, the evaluation of the New York juvenile justice system, or the system of juvenile prisons, were very similar to what was described at Oak Hill when you took it over, which is that the conditions were decrepit and deplorable. In fact, at one point you testified before the council that the kids didn't even have soap.

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: Yes.

MARTIN: Rodents, poor supervision, in fact, excessive force by guards, lack of programming and so forth. But you're not going into the prison system there. You're going into probation, right?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: What the probation side can do is set up the kinds of programs that will obviate the need to send the kids up to those kinds of facilities. Almost every kid who gets placed in one of those juvenile prisons in New York state gets recommended by a county probation officer.

I want to work with my probation officers to set up the kinds of programs that it can say no, little Michelle can go to this program, she doesn't have to get placed in a residential program where people smack her around when she talks in line.

MARTIN: Have you ever been a victim of a crime yourself?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: Absolutely, yeah. I got beat up. I was sexually molested as a kid. I was, you know, mugged in Central Park. My car's been stolen four different times. My house has been broken into. I'm not a big fan of crime, and if I had the ability to set public policy, five minutes after I was beat up, trust me, it would have been a lousy public policy.

MARTIN: Obviously, you anticipated where I was going to go with that. So you're saying what do you say to people who say I don't care that this person's 15 or 16. This person beat me up, carjacked my car, raped me. I want this kid punished. What do you say?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: The object of the system is to have fewer victims, not just more prisoners. So if imprisoning people needs to be done, then that's what needs to be done, but when we do it, we ought to make them the kinds of places where young people come out better than they went in, so there's still less chance in the future. But also we need to very carefully weed out the kids that don't belong behind bars. Because when the lightweights go to prison with the heavyweights, guess what? They don't rehabilitate the heavyweights, they learn from the heavyweights, and they become deeper-in kids than when they went in in the first place.

MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share?

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: I think the one most-wise thing I ever heard anybody say during my time is we should treat these kids the way we would want our own kids treated if they were in the same situation. And I always think: Think about your nephew, not your own kid. Because usually your nephew, you can have a little more distance from, right? You can know he was a knucklehead, and he needs to be kicked in the pants.

So if your nephew did something problematic, and he was looking to go into New York state's juvenile justice system, would you drive up with $210,000 in a briefcase and hand it to the warden of one of these facilities and say here, take good care of nephew because I can' think of any other way to spend that $210,000 to achieve the ends of public safety. And you know what? For some of them, the answer is yeah, take this $210,000 and put this kid in a secure program because he really can't be on the streets, but for a whole bunch of them, if we really made that trade-off, they could flourish in some of these community-based programs.

MARTIN: Vincent Schiraldi has served as the director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services since 2005. His next step will be the New York City Department of Probation. Vinnie Schiraldi was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr.�SCHIRALDI: Thank you very much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, it's time for the holidays, and that means spreading a little good cheer. The Howard Choir recently stopped by to show us how they do it.

(Soundbite of song, "Joy To the World")

HOWARD GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing) Joy to the world, the lord is come. Let Earth receive her king. Let every...

MARTIN: The Howard Gospel Choir sings some classic Christmas tunes. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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