New York City Commissioner of Probation Vincent N. Schiraldi, who previously
ran the juvenile justice system in Washington D.C., describes his journey from gadfly to government insider and the
reforms he’s been implementing along the way.
V. WOLF: This is Rob Wolf, director of communications for the Center for Court Innovation, and today
I’m with Vinnie Schiraldi, who is the commissioner of the Department of Probation in New York City.
SCHIRALDI: Good morning Rob. Thanks a lot for having me.
So you’ve been on the job for 13 months or so and you’re route to this job is kind of an interesting one,
and I thought maybe you could talk a little bit about how you began after college working with justice-involved youth
and traveled this route from advocate to working in the government.
So I was a house parent in a seven-bed home for juvenile delinquent boys run by the State Division for Youth. That’s
what the Office for Children and Family Services was called. The best job I ever had, I loved working with young
And then, you know, I just heard a speech by a really charismatic non-profit leader named
Jerome Miller who had deinstitutionalized the whole juvenile justice system for the state of Massachusetts and was
running a non-profit that did alternatives to incarceration. And I was hooked as soon as I heard this guy speak because
I really, really, really felt that incarceration was doing damage to these kids.
And so I chased
him out of the classroom when I was getting my master’s at Syracuse University. He hired me on the spot. I went to
work with a woman named Marsha Weissman, who lots of folks may know because she was at the Center for Community Alternatives
in New York. There I embarked upon a 25 year career in the non-profit world.
How did you end up running the juvenile justice system in Washington, DC?
Well, it was 2004 and I had been running the Justice Policy Institute, which is a major, major critic of over incarceration
in general, and specifically of the juvenile justice system in D.C.
I was writing op-eds and
screaming and yelling about how I wouldn’t kennel my dog in the D.C. juvenile justice system, and miraculously,
under enormous amounts of pressure, the mayor of D.C. hired me. Not pressure to hire me, pressure to do something
to fix this pathological system.
And he really broke the mold and everybody he had hired, or
everybody everybody hired before that had decades of experience running youth correctional facilities. And unfortunately,
this is a system where decades of experience can often be a minus in my opinion. Because so much of what goes on
in these systems is so bad. It’s just systemically bad. It’s not even just chronically bad.
so, to his credit, the mayor said you know what? I’m gonna try a different mold. I’m gonna bring a guy
in that really is outside the box. And that was Mayor Williams and then thankfully when Mayor Fenty got elected,
he kept me on.
WOLF: And so I understand you were the 20th director
in 19 years.
SCHIRALDI: That’s right.
But you stayed for five years. How did you manage to stay so much longer than anyone had and how did you—what kinds
of changes did you bring about? And how did you do it?
I did a couple things. One is that we really did articulate a vision that was very different than what was going
We said, too many of these kids are locked up. Many of them should be in community service,
community programs. We designed a really good set of community programs and then we tackled awful, awful institutional
We told every political leader that as we do this, there is gonna be enormous push-back.
The status quo will fight us back. Get ready because if you want to fix this you gotta know, the rubbers gonna hit
the road and you’re gonna have to take my back. If you’re not willing to do that, don’t bother hiring
me. So I told them coming in, don’t think this is gonna be an easy ride. This system is not gonna be shaken
up without fighting back.
And I had two votes of no-confidence from my unions within three months.
So they – I was right. And then people started leaking stuff to the press and, you know, to their credit, both mayors
and the city council, they took my back. They said we believe where this guy is going.
invite them up to activities we had there. We started a theatrical group. The kids were doing artwork. The kids were
taking guns that the police gave us, that had been disassembled, turning them into artwork, drawing together with
victims so that they could learn about, you know, victims of violence.
We were doing an enormous
amount of creative activity and every time I did it, I made sure the mayor, I made sure city council, I made sure
the judges, I made sure the media knew about it. Because I knew I was gonna take my hits so I needed to build up
a well of support.
WOLF: So what was the biggest lesson you’ve
learned from making the transition from advocacy to government?
I think the biggest thing I didn’t know is how much implementation and infrastructure matter, right? You can
sit back and think of all of the wonderful ideas in the world, but the trick with government isn’t just to come
up with good ideas. It’s to have those ideas implemented with some level of fidelity to what they were originally
about. And that’s, that’s really tricky.
I mean a lot of people don’t realize
that if I, today, decide I’m running a new program, it’s going to take a year before I can start that program.
I’ve got to write a scope of service. I’ve got to get it approved. A bunch of lawyers got to look at it. I’ve
got to get the money, you know? All of this stuff’s got to get together.
No actually, even
when I have the money, it’s going to take a year. So that’s something I really just, I didn’t know
anything about. I didn’t know anything about how difficult it was going to be to fix the boilers or procure
underwear for the kids in my facility.
These things were extraordinarily difficult in the government
context. And I, as an advocate, I had sort of always assumed that the bureaucrats that weren’t getting that
stuff done were dragging their feet, right? Because it just seems ridiculous that it’s gonna take six months
to procure new underwear for the kids so that they don’t have to wear recycled underwear when they come to the
facility. That’s a huge indignity and anyone who can’t fix that right away must be a bad person. So here
I am, and I’m a good person and I care about this, and I’m trying, and it’s taken me six months. So that was
a bit of a humbling lesson.
But on the other side, I do think that you don’t want to over
learn that lesson. What you don’t want to do is give up. You don’t want to start every reform with deflated
expectations. You got to have some rage in you and some fight in you, to believe that the unbelievable is true. So
even though it’s going to take you six months, you got to believe you can do it in two months. And you got to
fight like hell because if you do, you might get it done in six months, and then you might actually get it done,
which nobody did before, right?
The kids were always wearing recycled underwear. It took three
times as long as it should have, but they got underwear. So that was good. And that’s just one stupid little
example, but, although meaningful for kids, but we closed this facility that had been open since the ’60s.
don’t know how many of my staff people came up to me and said, “I never thought we were going to do this.” But
three and a half years in, I closed the old – Oak Hill it was called – it was the old facility, which was an awful,
awful place, and opened up a really beautiful, well-designed, new facility. That was, I got – I think that’s
the proudest moment in my entire career today. We padlocked Oak Hill and moved all those kids to that new place.
If you have a nice building and you want a good program, the synergy between the two really matters.
So let me ask you how you came to New York. What was the situation you were confronting?
The things I was confronted with here are very, very different than it was in D.C. because I think Marty did a good
job. Marty Horne, who was my predecessor, and Pat Brennan, I think, did a good job. I think, you know, New York’s
had some pretty, really terrific probation commissioners: Mike Jacobson, Catherine Abate, you know, a bunch of folks,
just tops in the field. So this wasn’t coming into a crippled, bitter place like I did in D.C., which is terrific
cause I can build.
Now’s the fun part, right? Now you can really sort of take the high level
and dream of making it higher, as opposed to having to slog through things like broilers and underwear, right?
think that by and large, people see us as a place that has a lot of decent people in it. So it’s not like they
don’t like my staff or don’t like the administration. But I feel like people view our services as generally
mediocre. And so in that respect, I do think that we could do some improving, particularly on the very essence of
the interaction between our staff and the people on probation. I think we can actually produce a better product.
But I can only do that cause Marty helped do all the stuff he did before. And the stuff he did
on juvenile justice, where he declared Project Zero, and he called the state centralized bureaucracy as a place where
nobody from New York City should go. He did that in 2004, and now Mayor Bloomberg came out and said, “We want to
take every single one of our kids out of that system in 2010.”
I think those were connected.
I don’t think that we should view them as independent acts. Marty laid down a marker. He started programs and
John Mattingly, [the commissioner] at ACS [the city’s Administration for Children’s Services], started
programs that have reduced the number of kids we put upstate by 62 percent. That’s an extraordinary reduction
in state commitments from New York City. And now we’re down to 300 kids left from New York City, in OCFS facilities.
And the end is within sight.
WOLF: That’s Office for Children
and Family Services facilities?
SCHIRALDI: That’s right. That’s
the state institution system.
WOLF: What is wrong, what has been
wrong with the state’s centralized bureaucracy?
What’s wrong with New York’s state centralized bureaucracy, called OCFS, is the same thing that’s
wrong and has been wrong with almost every state-centralized bureaucracy for juvenile institutions since the history
of these 220 years ago, which is that they turn into loveless, mediocre at best, often far less than that, brutalizing
at times, but dehumanizing almost always, environments for kids that get shipped far away from home, who come back
certainly no better and often a lot worse than they went.
In New York you hear about the justice
department’s lawsuit, kids getting their teeth broken and bones broken for things like asking for extra dessert
or talking in line, or putting too much sugar in their orange juice—silly stuff like that. And those are the highlights,
but—or low lights—but it’s also the day to day sort of lack of love. And I think what’s been said that
the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy. And I think that that’s really what characterizes most
of these training schools around the country and certainly in New York.
That and this enormous
distance between where these kids are and where they end up going—to the Finger Lakes and Adirondacks, and all these
crazy training schools—I think adds to it. I think if the kids were home we could have community vendors and community
institutions like churches and youth groups working with them so that when they come out, they are already engaged
with those folks.
WOLF: Your job involves also not just young people,
but 27,000 adults who are on probation as well. Maybe you can talk a little bit about innovations that you’re
SCHIRALDI: We have, like you said, 27,000 adults
that we’re supervising at any given time, and what we’re trying to do it take a lead from the National
Institute of Correction’s playbook, which talks all about evidence-based interactions between probation officers
and people on probation, to try to do what the research says should help people: Get a good risk-assessment instrument,
find out who’s high, medium, and low, do very little with the low, with the medium and high really focus resources
on dealing with the issues that matter from a crime-control standpoint. What should really correlate with re-arrest,
We’re going to train all our staff on how to do that, we’re going get an evidence-based
risk assessment instrument to help them, right? But the thing I think that will be different from us, that we’ll
do than the NIC playbook is we’re gonna take a lead from the Center for Court Innovation’s playbook, and
we’re going to do all of that in a very community-based, community-development setting, right? One of which
we hope we’ll do together with you guys in Brownsville, right?
So we’re saying, yes
it matters that we follow evidence as to how we interact with people. But it also matters that people reintegrate
into their own neighborhoods, which by the way, characterizes the vast majority of jurisprudence in the world prior
to about 150 years ago.
Prior to about 150 years ago, most times people broke the law, it got
solved—it happened within a few blocks of where they lived, a few miles, a few feet, and it got dealt with right
in that neighborhood.
We have professionalized that and moved everything to downtown courthouses
and downtown probation departments and upstate prisons, and I think by doing that we make things worse. I don’t
think we make things—I don’t think we make things uniformly better. There were some things that got better,
but I think the part where the community actually has a stake in what happens to its miscreants, if you want to call
them that, right? We lost that. And that, I think, matters.
Well, it’s exciting to think about the Brownsville project, which is one of our newest projects in planning—a new
community court with a youth-focus.
I’ve been speaking with Vinnie Schiraldi, the commissioner
of the Department of Probation. Thanks so much for coming by our office today to give a presentation to staff and
spending some time to talk with me.
SCHIRALDI: Thanks Rob, it was
a really good way to end the week.
WOLF: And I’m Rob Wolf, director
of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. If you want to find out more about our work, visit our website
at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.