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Why Is Deborah Brown Dead?

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, September 5, 2009

I didn't know Deborah Ann Brown, who worked at the Dunkin' Donuts store on 14th Street NW. But I know plenty of people like her. They stand on their feet all day doing their job of tending to others and playing by the rules.

Which is one of the reasons I'm so angry that she's dead.

Brown, 48, was walking on 14th Street on the night of Aug. 29 when her life was taken, allegedly by a teenager on a bicycle who was recklessly firing his gun at someone else.

I'm angry because Deborah Brown had every right to walk the streets of the nation's capital unmolested. She lived within the law. The first-degree murder charge filed by D.C. police against 17-year-old Devonte Carlton alleges that he has not. She's gone; he's still here.

You probably know from reading The Post's story on Brown's shooting that police said Carlton was a member of a gang known as the Girard Street crew, or "G-Rod"; that his crew was supposedly feuding with a rival gang; and that Carlton allegedly fired his weapon last Saturday when he spotted a perceived enemy across the street.

Was this Devonte Carlton's first brush with the law?

The reason the question cannot be answered officially -- and if it's left up to the mayor and council, you will never know the answer -- is that they have made it illegal for you to know it.

The city believes juvenile offenders ought to be protected from the stigma of public knowledge about their behavior. It also contends that after juvenile offenders receive the benefit of supervision, treatment and support provided by the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, they should be allowed to get on with their lives with a clean slate. To achieve that goal, the city restricts access to juvenile records.

When asked Friday about Devonte Carlton, D.C. Superior Court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz wrote in an e-mail: "The D.C. Code protects the confidentiality of juveniles and their court records; this restriction remains in place even if they are later charged as adults."

By the way, Devonte's brother is Lafonte Carlton. Name sound familiar? It should. I wrote about Lafonte Carlton earlier this year. ["One Young Offender's History in D.C., Feb. 7; "A Deadly Toll Is Reduced to 'Anecdotes,' " Feb. 21; "What the Mayor Won't Tell You About D.C.," March 21.] Lafonte Carlton, then 18, was charged in January with two homicides in the District -- one allegedly committed in December 2008, the other on Jan. 9. He was under the supervision of DYRS at the time of his arrest.

At age 15, Lafonte was placed in DYRS custody by the court until age 21 for committing a homicide. However, he was released from secure detention 2 1/2 years later. My Feb. 7 column detailed aspects of Lafonte Carlton's juvenile criminal history.

In that respect, I probably stand accused of having stigmatized Lafonte by making public some of his youthful indiscretions.

I have written for more than two years about D.C. juvenile offenders, their crimes and their victims. On occasion I have named names where possible and described some incidents graphically.

I have done so with the purpose of calling attention to the impact of the city's decision to divert as many convicted delinquent youths from secure detention as possible. This decision is justified on the grounds that secure detention is punitive and synonymous with "lock 'em up and throw away the key."

Some young offenders, because of risks they pose to themselves and others, require a therapeutic treatment approach, but in a humane, safe and secure facility. That idea gets little traction in the District.

The city has drastically reduced bed space in secure facilities in favor of more placements in residential and group homes, and in community-based care. At issue is the behavior of released juveniles and their impact on the community.

Consider my most recent column about Cornell Scrivner, 18, arrested at a DYRS independent-living apartment and charged with murder. I've written similar columns about violent crimes committed by other youths who were under DYRS supervision.

Citizens deserve to know what is going on. Unfortunately, city government officials cannot say with any precision because even they don't know.

This week, I asked DYRS to provide the number of DYRS-supervised youth in alternative placements (i.e. not in Oak Hill, Youth Services Center or New Beginnings, all secure facilities) who were arrested in 2007, 2008 and 2009 to date, as well as those injured by violence in the same period. I also asked that the results be shown as a percentage of youth in alternative placements.

It's too late to help Deborah Ann Brown. But before it's too late to save others in the community, each alternative-placement decision ought to be reviewed by an impartial, and professionally competent, third-party not beholden to DYRS in any way. If warranted, those early-release decisions should be reversed.

Yes, that's what I said.

kingc@washpost.com

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