Former D.C. juvenile justice chief will lead New York City corrections department
As the Biden administration began to staff up, Youth Services Insider consistently heard one name on people’s lips in regard to the top jobs related to youth justice: Vincent Schiraldi, a longtime reformer who in the early 2000s left the advocacy world to overhaul Washington, D.C.’s broken juvenile justice system.
Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was a natural fit, and a job he had once been considered a shoo-in for under Barack Obama, before the continuous criticism of one Washington Post columnist seemingly did in his candidacy. This time around it looked like the perfect fit might be the top job at the Office of Justice Programs, which oversees much of the federal relationship with states and counties on law enforcement.
But a return to Washington is not to be, at least for the time being. Schiraldi will temporarily leave his position as co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab to be New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC), which oversees the city’s 10 jail facilities, eight of which reside on the infamous and soon-to-be-shuttered Rikers Island.
“The opportunity to run, reform, and downsize New York City's jail system and push forward efforts to close the Rikers Island jails isn’t just an opportunity to advance justice and decency that I couldn't pass up,” said Schiraldi, in an email to colleagues. “It’s also a chance to implement the types of policy innovations and transformational change that the Justice Lab studies and shapes.”
Schiraldi, an acolyte of the famous de-incarceration champion Jerry Miller, co-founded the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice with Dan Macallair in 1985, and left to help create the Justice Policy Institute. He was brought into government by former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to turn things around at the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which had been under a consent decree for decades and had cycled through an unending string of directors. Schiraldi, not without a ton of pushback, shuttered the city’s decrepit youth prison and replaced it with a much smaller campus-like facility, steering far more of the youth in his agency’s custody into community-based programs and services.
He is hardly a newcomer to New York City’s justice infrastructure. After it became clear that a spot in the Obama administration was not in the cards, he left D.C. to become former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s probation commissioner, and then moved to a senior adviser role in Bloomberg’s Office of Criminal Justice. In 2017, he started up the Justice Lab at Columbia, which pairs research with advocacy to pursue more community-focused justice solutions around the country.
Schiraldi will step away from the lab on June 1 for eight months to finish out de Blasio’s tenure. The mayor’s previous commissioner, Cyntha Brann, resigned on Tuesday.
“With justice as the leading topic of public conversation and New Yorkers calling on public officials to reimagine the justice system as a whole, Schiraldi’s appointment to the Department of Correction is exactly what the city needs,” said Bruce Western, the Justice Lab’s co-director, in a statement issued today.
In DOC, Schiraldi inherits an agency that has struggled to make meaningful progress in addressing violence and other troublesome conditions as the city prepares to move on from Rikers Island. Youth younger than 18 have been walled off from stays at Rikers, and DOC has moved steadily toward phasing out the use of solitary confinement as a punishment. But this month, a monitoring team tasked with documenting and assisting with improvements at the agency issued the following dreary assessment:
The Department struggles to meaningfully reform the Agency. The type of change required will not occur by tinkering around the edges — a wholesale change in the way Staff approach individuals in custody is needed. It bears repeating that simply identifying and articulating what needs to change, and/or requiring the development of plans to change practice does not then magically make those changes occur — particularly when those changes must be adopted in practice by thousands of Staff Members and Supervisors across many jails.
Our guess is that de Blasio would not call in a guy known for dramatic reform, who has weathered scrapes with unions in the past, if he wanted a quiet end of the run at DOC. His predecessor, Brann, was maligned by the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, which blamed her policies for a rise in violent attacks on guards in the city jails.
“Without a doubt … Commissioner Brann’s tenure was disastrous for our [correctional officers],” the association said in a tweet after her resignation was announced.
Youth Services Insider is reminded of something Schiraldi once told us about his plans for D.C.’s juvenile justice overhaul.
“I had to move fast” on making changes, he told us in 2009, shortly before taking on the New York City probation job. “That bent some noses out of shape. But I wasn’t looking to be a 20-year man; I wasn’t even looking to be a five-year man.”
We’ll see what happens when he isn’t looking to survive a full year. After that, who knows? The aforementioned positions for Team Biden might still be open. Trump never nominated someone to lead the Office of Justice Programs, and Obama was in his second term before there was a permanent hire to lead the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.