Arrest of 3 teens in Brian Betts's death puts scrutiny on D.C. juvenile system

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

The District's juvenile justice agency has come under scrutiny again after three teens under its care were charged in the slaying of a city school principal.

The shooting death of Brian Betts has unleashed a round of finger-pointing over who is to blame for the fact that the 18-year-olds charged in his killing -- Sharif T. Lancaster, Alante Saunders and Deontra Q. Gray-- were at large.

All three had lengthy juveniles arrest records, and all three were wanted. Saunders had walked away from a group home two weeks before Betts was killed, and Gray and Lancaster, who were being supervised in the community, had stopped showing up for court hearings and meetings with juvenile officials weeks before the April 15 homicide.

At least seven men under the city's care have been charged with murder this year, more than in last year and nearly as many as in 2008. As of this week, almost 80 youths, or about 8 percent of the D.C. juvenile system's population, were unaccounted for.

But trying to determine responsibility can be difficult in the District's juvenile justice system. Local officials run the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which supervises almost 1,000 people.

But the D.C. Superior Court, which is funded and overseen by the federal government, has a social services agency that supervises youths who are on probation -- including one of the men charged in Betts's death. Communication and coordination are lacking, said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the council's public safety committee.

"It's not working, because the agencies are not working together as well as they need to," he said. "It's a mess."

The juvenile system doesn't work the way the adult system typically does. Judges, not juries, hear cases against juveniles. But juvenile judges in the District have less power than their counterparts in some other jurisdictions. In the District, the juvenile justice agency, not judges, decides whether a juvenile will serve a sentence in a locked facility, be placed in a community facility or live at home.

At least two of the three of the men charged in Betts's death had spent time at New Beginnings, the District's long-term juvenile detention center, or its predecessor, Oak Hill. On April 15, authorities say, the men robbed and killed Betts in his Silver Spring home.

In the hours before he was killed, Betts, a well-liked principal at a D.C. middle school, had talked to one of the teens on a chat line they were using to scope out a mark, authorities said. Later that night, Gray, Lancaster and Saunders showed up at Betts's home, police said. In the course of the robbery, Betts was shot to death.

The District has been trying to reform its juvenile justice system for years; by some measures, it has made progress. One of the key goals has been to place youths in the least restrictive settings while maintaining public safety. But the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, created in 2005 to carry out much of the reform, has come under fire for what critics see as a focus on rehabilitation that overlooks the dangers posed by some of the youths in its care.

Like Gray, Lancaster and Saunders, most of those under DYRS supervision are not in detention centers. As Saunders did, some live in group homes, which are staffed but not locked. Others, such as Gray and Lancaster, live at home and are supervised in the community. Only about 60 of the youths committed to DYRS live at its New Beginnings, and 160 or so with severe behavioral issues live in out-of-state facilities better able to deal with specialized needs.

When a juvenile is placed on probation, as Lancaster was, he would report to Court Social Services. A spokeswoman for D.C. Superior Court said the number of juveniles under the agency's supervision was not available. Other information about the agency, such as how many of its juveniles have been arrested in the past year and how many have absconded from custody, was also said to be unavailable.

Court Social Services, like DYRS, has a unit that tries to find youths who have walked away from a group home or who have stopped showing up for drug tests or other appointments.

But with dozens of juvenile absconders at any given time, DYRS does not have the resources to mount an intense search for every one of them. The agency's absconder unit is made up of three people, so it relies on police officers, who have to worry not only about scores of juveniles but also thousands of adults wanted by the courts. Of the roughly 16,000 people under the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, more than 2,000 are in absconder status, a spokesman for that agency said.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Human Services Committee, said the panel, which oversees DYRS, will hold a hearing this month to discuss juveniles who abscond.

"We need to know and be confident that the government is retrieving them and getting them back into custody as fast as humanly possible," he said, adding that he thinks the council should not rush to change the law. "I want to be sure that we don't react in a way that makes us less safe because of political heat of the moment."

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