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Adult Crimes, Young Offenders: 'Where Do We Draw the Line?'

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Victoria Price was startled from sleep by an intruder who tried to rape her. Chandler Goule was followed, forced to the concrete at gunpoint and robbed. Matthew Caspari was chased down an alley at knifepoint as his wife screamed in horror.

The three victims told their stories yesterday during a public hearing about D.C. Council legislation that would allow judges to send certain cases back to juvenile court and to end the pretrial placement of youths charged as adults at the D.C. jail. Youth advocates long have maintained that the jail is unfit for juveniles.

But prosecutors and crime victims such as Price, 80, questioned whether city leaders were focused too much on the needs of alleged criminals. D.C. police recently reported that robberies by youths are on the rise. Last Friday, three teenagers -- 13, 14 and 15 -- were charged as juveniles with murder in the beating of a 56-year-old man who was attacked Oct. 6 as he walked home from a grocery store in Southwest Washington.

"I have lived here since 1973 with no iron bars on my window. Now I'm afraid in my own house," said Price, 80, of the crime two years ago at her home in Southwest Washington. "I'm not comfortable in my own neighborhood. Where do we draw the line with these young people?"

Yesterday's hearing was part of that ongoing debate.

Some said the District coddles, rather than punishes, serious juvenile offenders. But Jauhar Abraham, co-founder of Peaceoholics, said the city spent hundreds of millions on a baseball stadium while programs catering to youth begged for dollars, leaving many youngsters hungry, abused or neglected. He contends that the tendency to lock youths up has intensified as more whites become victims.

"These children have been killing and robbing each other for years," said Abraham, noting the city's changing demographics.

In the District and across the country, legislators are deciding whether, and how, to reverse a trend started in the 1990s of placing more juveniles in the adult system.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he is trying to balance the desire to punish against research showing that juveniles held in adult facilities are more likely to reoffend because those jails don't offer the same therapy and education as juvenile institutions.

Wells said he visited the juvenile wing at the D.C. jail and found that youths were sitting around with nothing to do. Computers were down, and the youths were lucky to get outside once a week -- an environment not conducive to rehabilitation, he said, particularly for those ultimately found not guilty.

"They are more likely to victimize us again if they don't get rehabilitation when they are in the system," he said.

Andrew Williams, 22, said he was charged as an adult when he was 17. He did not reveal what offense led to his trouble, but said he was terrified when he arrived at the D.C. jail. "There were fights every day. People took your shoes, food and even your clean underwear. I could never let my guard down."

Liz Ryan, president and chief executive of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said young people who come out of that system -- particularly those later found not guilty -- come out hardened. She said the U.S. attorney's office charges too many youths as adults.

But Patricia A. Riley of the U.S. attorney's office said the office is judicious in choosing cases for the adult system. Youths who are 16 or 17 and are charged with rape, armed robbery, home invasion burglary or assault with the intent to commit those crimes can be waived automatically into the adult system.

The legislation under consideration would allow a judge to overturn the U.S. attorney's decision and send the case back to the juvenile system.

Riley said that her office has waived 428 youths into the adult system since 1999. Seventy-two percent, she said, were found guilty of a crime.

"We don't take all the cases we can," she said. "A lot of people think we are taking too few cases, not too many."

Among them: Chandler Goule of Northeast Washington. Over the years, three of his cars were stolen and three were broken into. He said he was robbed at gunpoint in July.

"The three young adults that violently attacked me planned it," he said. "They secured a gun and bullets, devised a plan to trap me and executed it perfectly. Don't tell me it wasn't an adult making those meticulous decisions."

Caspari, who lives near Capitol Hill, said he called the police Aug. 12 after a teenager harassed his neighbor. The youth pulled a knife and charged after Caspari but gave up after about 50 yards. Caspari played a 911 tape yesterday in which his wife screamed in the background. The young man, he said, was arrested but is now back on the street.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said, "Individual situations are powerful, but what is the strategy that is more likely to reduce crime?"

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