Leading the way in D.C.: A public-private partnership for juvenile justice reform

Peter J. Nickels, General Counsel to the Mayor, Tamara Lucas Copeland, President, Washington Grantmakers, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty; Vinny Schiraldi, Director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services; Rubie Coles, Chair of Washington Grantmakers’ Children, Youth, and Families Working Group

“Treat these kids like animals, they’ll behave like animals. 
Treat them like human beings, they’ll behave like human beings.”

– Vinny Schiraldi

Many are familiar with the ugly, well-documented history of D.C.’s juvenile justice system. Fewer are aware of the reform effort that began in 2005 when former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams tapped child advocate and long-time Oak Hill critic Vinny (”I wouldn’t kennel my dog in there”) Schiraldi to run the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The plain-speaking, clear-thinking Schiraldi began building any bridge that might benefit the youth in his custody, no matter how unconventional or unprecedented. His belief: You can’t create the first juvenile justice system built on the principles of Positive Youth Development all by yourself.

Funders in the Older Youth Task Force of Washington Grantmakers’ Children, Youth, and Families Working Group realized early on that Vinny could be the catalyst for change that D.C.’s juvenile justice system so desperately needed. They began meeting with him regularly, exchanging ideas and updates, supporting learning opportunities for youth in custody, and advocating on Vinny’s behalf to the D.C. Council.

This past Monday, Washington Grantmakers sponsored a tour of Oak Hill so that local and national funders could hear an overview of the effort from Mayor Fenty, see Vinny’s reforms in action, and hear from the team he has assembled. Essentially, Schiraldi spent the day seeking financial and moral support for key nonprofits and experts in juvenile justice and youth development–some of whom were not even allowed access to the facility before Schiraldi’s arrival.

Speaking on behalf of these former “adversaries” probably isn’t in his job description. So why is he doing it? Because he believes that public-private parterships are crucial to making the reforms stick and to helping these ideas to spread across the country. The Older Youth Task Force shares this belief and is co-ordinating funder involvement. If you’re a local or national funder and would like to learn more, contact Mary Hallisy or Rubie Coles.


D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty; Mary Hallisy, Chair of the Older Youth Task Force of Washington Grantmakers Children, Youth, and Families Working Group; Tamara Copeland, President, Washington Grantmakers; Carolynn Mambu, Dir. of Public Policy, Washington Grantmakers