washingtonpost.com
Who will answer for teen offenders?

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 31, 2009

The D.C. Council labored mightily this week to give Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee her comeuppance for firing teachers and staff whom legislators wanted kept on the payroll. The way Rhee went about the layoffs may have handed council members ammo that could be used against her. But if test scores are up and the school system has stopped bleeding students, as The Post has reported, it's not all bad. Face it, a good bedside manner is not one of Rhee's strong points.

That said, the council has every right, and a duty, to exercise oversight of the school system. If, however, lawmakers are sincere about bringing accountability to efforts in behalf of children, they must cast a wider net. Youth are being shortchanged by more than poor teaching. To be blunt, the council needs to investigate why the lives of our youth are being jeopardized daily by one of the very departments charged with helping them.

Consider teenager Tyrone Hopkins, who made the big time this week. He was charged with armed robbery, as an adult, under Title 16 of the D.C. Code. It's a section of the law not often invoked against youth offenders.

The whole idea of trying juveniles in Family Court instead of in the adult system is the belief, a correct one in my view, that kids who break the law for the first time ought to be given a chance at rehabilitation through a system designed to restore them to crime-free lives.

Until this week, Tyrone Hopkins was in such a system -- the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. It's led by social worker Vincent Schiraldi, who is a firm believer in applying the rehabilitative process to young offenders in the least restrictive environment -- the D.C. community being his venue of choice.

Hopkins, according to a source familiar with his record, was given that chance by DYRS. The teen was committed to DYRS last year, the source said, after being "adjudicated," or found guilty, in Family Court of an armed robbery. If DYRS placed him in secure detention, the source said, it could not have been for very long, because he was arrested on the streets in early October 2008 for possession of marijuana.

Hopkins lied about his name at the time of his arrest, the source said. He was caught showing a 15-year-old girl how to roll a blunt (a hollowed cigar filled with marijuana). Although he was committed to DYRS, the source said, authorities decided to release him to return to court later. Hopkins failed to appear.

When he finally turned himself in, a court hearing was held and probable cause found to believe he committed the new drug possession offense. He was again remanded to DYRS, which apparently released him again, because he was arrested on Hayes Street NE on Tuesday. On Friday, a Superior Court judge found probable cause and ordered him held pending trial.

DYRS has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, but the question must still be asked: Why was Hopkins permitted to roam free despite an armed robbery conviction, for which he was committed to DYRS, and a re-arrest for drug possession?

This is the kind of inquiry that Council Chairman Vincent Gray and his colleagues ought to be pressing at public hearings. Why is no one in the District government, DYRS specifically, held accountable for these decisions? Why does the council tolerate such a mindset when it threatens public safety?

But the inquiry shouldn't be limited to DYRS supervision. The two people who brought Tyrone Hopkins into this world ought to have an opportunity to tell the public about his home environment, the circumstances of his adolescence, and the presence or absence of conditions that affected his character development. After all, Hopkins's involvement in the justice system makes D.C. taxpayers stakeholders in his life.

And to really exercise oversight, the council should look beyond this one example.

The majority of convicted juvenile offenders such as Hopkins are placed at their homes by DYRS rather than in more restrictive settings. They number more than 300, according to DYRS testimony submitted to the council this year.

An additional 150 DYRS-supervised youth were in D.C. group and foster homes or in independent living programs. Only 76 juveniles were in DYRS's secure detention facility at that time, Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, while 88 were placed in the agency's secure Youth Services Center in the District.

The number of delinquents in secure detention has decreased considerably with the replacement of Oak Hill with the much smaller "state-of-the-art" New Beginnings facility in Laurel.

What, the full council might ask, are hundreds of DYRS-supervised youth in the community up to? How many more Tyrone Hopkinses are out there? I've reported on several. There's a larger concern.

Besides working on academic achievement, Rhee has to maintain a gang intervention unit to contend with gangs or crews disrupting the school system. Outside the schools, an estimated 100 such groups are making life hell in communities.

Lawmakers wanting to learn how children are faring in our schools, and about the state of public safety on our streets, ought to inquire into links between DYRS youth and crews on the streets, the family breakdown that brings the two together and their collective impact on schools and the community.

Ah, but where are the votes and photo ops in that?

It's more fun to punch out Rhee.

kingc@washpost.com

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company