Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described the pretrial services agency that had been supervising a suspect charged in the murder of D.C. school principal Brian Betts. The D.C. Pretrial Services Agency is an independent entity within the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, not a division of D.C. Superior Court.

Betts murder raises questions about how D.C., courts handle young offenders

Friday, May 7, 2010

THREE YOUNG MEN under the supervision of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) have been arrested in the murder of a much-beloved school principal. Community outcry about the competency of this agency in ensuring public safety is understandable. We share the concerns, and we believe it is time for an independent commission to review how the District and the court system handle juvenile offenders. Such a study could examine the untold successes of the city along with both the hidden and the very public failures. It could consider whether the secrecy that shrouds juvenile justice in the city serves more to protect children or shield the system. And it could recognize the progress we believe has been made in the past five years while considering, without defensiveness, further reforms that may be needed.

Authorities arrested three 18-year-olds -- Sharif T. Lancaster, Alante Saunders and Deontra Q. Gray -- in the April 15 murder of Brian K. Betts. The well-known D.C. principal was found shot to death in his Silver Spring home, and it is believed he was targeted for a robbery through his use of a phone-sex chat line. Each of the suspects had troubled backgrounds and had been committed for criminal offenses to the city's youth services department. Their arrests bring to seven the number of young men ostensibly under the care of DYRS facing homicide charges this year. That is more than in all of last year, and it brings renewed scrutiny to an agency that some believe is too cavalier in deciding which youths can be released back into the community, and when.

Juvenile justice officials argue that that's a skewed picture. They point to statistics showing that the average length of stay for youths incarcerated at its secure facility in Maryland increased from 72 days in 2005 to 210 days in 2009. They say the reported abscondence rate for committed youth declined from a high of 26 percent in 2003 to the current 8 percent. The number of youths who have been charged with homicide or have been victims of homicide is a small percentage of the 920 being served by the department, a population that has steadily grown. Often its successes go unmarked. Last year, officials say, five of its youths were charged with homicide and five were homicide victims -- but 16 were admitted and enrolled in college.

Nonetheless, there are troubling questions about the Betts suspects. All three had lengthy juvenile arrest records, including some serious crimes. Not all the arrests resulted in convictions, but serious questions remain about their placement back in the community and the rigor of their supervision. One suspect had absconded from a group home, and it seems there was a delay -- yet to be explained -- in obtaining a custody order. Two others were being sought because they failed to appear at court hearings or meetings with juvenile officials. Not all the responsibility is with DYRS; one suspect was also on juvenile probation under the supervision of the Court Social Services Division of D.C. Superior Court, and a second suspect who faced adult charges was under the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency.

UNFORTUNATELY, the District's strict confidentiality laws surrounding virtually every aspect of a juvenile case obscure many facts. We understand the importance of privacy for a child putting his or her life together after a youthful infraction, but what purpose is served by barring dissemination of information when, as in the case of these three men, there are adult charges of heinous wrongdoing? The absurdity of the city's law is reflected in the ability of Montgomery County to release the youths' arrest records even as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his attorney general were criticized for merely disclosing the trio's connection to DYRS.

Relaxing confidentiality rules should top the list of fixes to the system, but other areas bear examination. It has been a decade since the blue-ribbon commission that led to the reforms at the heart of today's system, so it is time for review and possible course correction. With New Beginnings open as a replacement to the notorious Oak Hill facility, are there enough secure beds? Are communication and coordination adequate in a system split between local and federal officials? Should there not be a public after-action review whenever, as in the Betts case, failures are revealed?

The most urgent issue is whether the courts should have a role in directing the placement or treatment of juveniles once they are committed to DYRS. A D.C. Court of Appeals decision in 2003 essentially stripped judges of any say, giving sole authority to the city. There's always a danger that those doing the work of rehabilitation have an inflated sense of their own effectiveness. An independent assessment of their conclusions before a youth, particularly one with violent offenses, is released from secure detention seems to us to be a useful, and perhaps essential, idea.

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