As Maryland Gov. Wes Moore begins to put his imprint on state government agencies, he’s picked a nationally recognized criminal justice reformer to run the state’s juvenile services system, pleasing advocates and state watchdogs who hope the changemaker will advance recently enacted reforms.

Vincent Schiraldi, a justice policy researcher and seasoned public official, is the Democratic governor’s choice for secretary of juvenile services. He begins his confirmation process in the state Senate on Monday.

Schiraldi comes to Maryland with more than 40 years of criminal justice reform experience. He’s known for remaking Washington, D.C.’s juvenile system into a national model and retooling New York City’s probation department. But he also brings with him humility and reflection after the recent sting of trying and failing to implement reforms at one of the most notorious prisons in the country — Rikers Island.

Just two weeks into the job, Schiraldi said he’s ready to tackle his new boss’s agenda. And all signs point to consensus between the men on the path forward in Maryland.

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The governor has made clear he wants to revamp a juvenile system that disproportionately jails Black youths and as part of a broader public safety plan to reduce violent crime in Baltimore City — one of the reasons Moore said he decided to run for office.

Moore’s vision, which echoes Schiraldi’s language, includes not only accountability but prevention. Agencies tasked with ensuring Maryland’s vulnerable children have basic necessities, including food, housing, mental healthcare and education must be part of the solution in stopping juvenile crime, Moore said.

Moore agrees with his appointee that “the way we are going to solve this challenge is simply not by policing and arresting and militarizing our way out of it,” he told WBAL 1090AM talk show hosts Clarence Mitchell IV and Bryan Nehman. “These are children.”

Schiraldi’s plan for juvenile justice connects the dots between youth rehabilitation and public safety. One idea he’ll explore includes building up the capacity of service providers in neighborhoods where youths will eventually return. In part, he said, because “they’ll see these people on a basketball court and in church and in the supermarkets.”

“There’s increasingly good evidence that the more you have a cohesive community with ... supports, the safer that community is,” Schiraldi said of the multi-year initiative.

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The policy researcher favors service learning, therapy and tutoring, and raising the age limit to 25 for juvenile services — all strategies backed by research showing reduced recidivism. He supports abolishing youth prisons and banning solitary confinement. And when children in the most severe cases must be detained, he supports clean, safe, home-like settings that are closer to their families.

“The science says that we can do better in the communities either by diverting the kid completely from being locked up or by supporting them post-release,” he said.

During his decades-long career, Schiraldi has founded two criminal justice think tanks, including the D.C-based nonprofit Justice Policy Institute, and co-directed the Columbia Justice Lab in New York. His transformation of New York City’s probation department inspired the state’s “Less is More Act,” a law meant to reduce recidivism based on technical parole violations.

Moore publicly supported the law in his role as chief executive officer of anti-poverty nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation in New York City. The men had met years ago when Schiraldi headed the probation department.

‘Uniquely qualified’

Moore made the right choice in Schiraldi, said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He called his longtime colleague “the most experienced, reform-minded and successful administrator in this space, nationally.” Schindler said he may again advise Schiraldi in Maryland.

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Schindler served as Schiraldi’s chief of staff and general counsel when Schiraldi directed the D.C.’s Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services. Schiraldi’s team dismantled and rebuilt the broken system that had been under a consent decree because of the abusive treatment of children and decrepit physical plant conditions.

Struggling children received a network of community services, which provided job training, service learning and mentorship, and, eventually, youths were only detained in the most serious cases.

“He succeeded in ways that no one else had,” said Schindler. “He’s a very, very smart person who understands how to work within bureaucracy, which is not true of everyone.”

Schindler expected the new secretary will work to advance sweeping juvenile justice reforms approved by the legislature last year.

“He’s uniquely qualified to come into a place like Maryland, and really push forward — that doesn’t mean that there won’t be pushback, right?” he said. “Systems push back.”

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Inherited ‘disastrous’ jail system

Nowhere did Schiraldi experience more resistance than as the correction department commissioner tasked with closing New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. His leading-edge reforms were unwelcome by those expected to implement them — the corrections officers.

“They really didn’t believe it could work,” Schiraldi said. “It’s like being on a trapeze. And I’m the catcher saying, ‘Jump!’ Right? And they’re like, ‘No, I ain’t jumping.’

Long before Schiraldi’s arrival, a federal court placed the city under a consent decree after finding corrections officers excessively used physical force, violating adolescent prisoners’ civil rights.

In 2021, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio hired him to change the punitive culture, ban solitary confinement and fix the unsafe conditions for inmates and corrections officers. Schiraldi would stay for seven months.

And since his departure in January of 2022, conditions continued to be “dangerously unsafe,” according to a federal monitor. Seventeen people died in custody from January to October 2022.

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Rikers colleagues who worked alongside Schiraldi said he inherited a “disastrous” and “damaged” situation. Tensions that had been brewing for years between the city and the unions reached a boil as working conditions declined.

“The department was desperately trying to come into compliance with the ... consent decree, among other things, and failing miserably in almost all categories of compliance,” said Sarena Townsend, a top internal affairs investigator under Schiraldi. “And he did what he could; he inherited a lot of problems.”

On the day Schiraldi rolled out his plans for improving jail safety conditions by hiring more officers and fixing cell doors, the officers union filed a lawsuit against his department, alleging “inhumane” working conditions.

Schiraldi said he wished matters could have been handled out of court, “but I totally understand their frustration.”

Officers called out sick in the thousands per month, others just didn’t show up. Those who did staff jails worked triple and quadruple shifts in increasingly dangerous conditions.

When Schiraldi began requiring ill and injured officers to get sick notes from sanctioned doctors, the unions’ frustrations spiked. And the city ended up suing the corrections officers union for condoning an illegal strike.

Meanwhile, Townsend’s team documented reams of false sick leave claims.

“They’d be posting pictures and videos of themselves on vacation, in Jamaica and other places like that, swinging off of a cliff, diving into water,” she said.

Unions unified on jail boss

Once it became clear that a former law enforcement officer would replace de Blasio, union leaders said they lobbied Mayor Eric Adams and his advisers for “uniform-friendly” change.

“He’s not part of us. He has this different vision, okay?” said Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains’ Association, one of three unions whose members work on Rikers. “It just wasn’t a good fit for us.”

The union heads characterized Schiraldi as an inflexible disciplinarian who piled on use-of-force infractions, making it impossible for officers to defend themselves against violent prisoners. One called Schiraldi’s sick note policy “harsh.”

Adams did not reappoint Schiraldi and reversed his sick note policy.

Joe Russo, president of the deputies union, said that he believed Schiraldi had good intentions but the “wildly out of control” conditions at Rikers drove many officers to think twice before coming to work. He admitted the reasons behind some officers calling out were “debatable.”

But after Schiraldi left the department, the number of officers out sick dropped by the hundreds, Russo said.

“Staff came back to work after Mr. Schiraldi left because there were promises of a kinder, staff-friendly — more staff-friendly — Department of Correction.“

”Now, you might say, ‘Well, then how sick could these people be?’ " Russo said. “And that’s a good point.”

Table set for reform in Maryland

But where New York has closed one door, Maryland has opened another. The Cabinet hopeful arrives just after recently enacted reforms have begun to yield results and momentum in the juvenile system favors evidence-based research.

The General Assembly passed a law last year that, among other measures, banned the use of technical probation violations and banned youth detention for misdemeanors. The sweeping reform also enacted a minimum age of 13 as the earliest a child can enter the juvenile system.

The number of youths sent to diversionary programs rather than jail nearly doubled in 2022 as authorities have sought alternatives to detention.

Also in Schiraldi’s favor, Moore has put money in the juvenile services budget to fill open positions. Last year, the department reverted $12.6 million in unspent salaries to the general fund because of the vacancies. The union representing juvenile services employees declined to comment on Schiraldi’s appointment.

Some legislators are hesitant to embrace Schiraldi’s avant-garde approach without first hearing more.

Sen. Justin Ready, a member of the committee who will vote on whether to advance Schiraldi’s nomination, expressed concerns over the appointee’s desire to close youth jails.

“We need a firm hand even while we try to help these young people,” the Republican who represents Frederick and Carroll counties said. “Discipline is what turns people’s lives around.”

Other officials are already on board.

Nick Moroney, the director of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent agency that oversees the state’s youth detention and placement centers, said he considers the progress he’s seen in the last 15 years a good sign for Schiraldi’s tenure.

And Moroney’s hopes for the future align with Schiraldi’s community-based plans.

“The main thing we are hoping for is that — instead of sending kids out of home — community-based resources are leveraged to help kids overcome their individual challenges,” Moroney said.

He welcomes Schiraldi’s methods and is excited to see what he’ll do.

“I think his approach will be welcomed, certainly by us.”

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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