Oversight of D.C. youth offenders questioned after arrests in principal's death

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 4:32 PM

The Court Social Services Division has nearly 2,000 young offenders under its supervision. It assesses every youth who enters the District's juvenile justice system. And it advises Superior Court judges about what should happen to juveniles found to have been involved in serious crimes.

Yet outside of local law enforcement, Court Social Services, the family court's probation agency, is all but unknown.

And so when juveniles are charged in a high-profile crime, the hard questions usually end up with the mayor's juvenile justice agency, even when, as in the slaying of Brian Betts last month in Silver Spring, Court Social Services turns out to have been supervising a juvenile charged in the case.

On Friday, the D.C. Council committee that oversees the mayoral agency, the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services, will be posing questions about the Betts case, and in particular about the supervision of three teenagers who have been charged with killing Betts, the popular principal of a D.C. public school.

All three were 18, and all had lengthy juvenile arrest records. And all of them were already wanted by the authorities on April 15 when they are alleged to have robbed and killed Betts in his Silver Spring home. In the parlance of the juvenile justice system, they were "absconders." Alante Saunders had walked away from a group home where he had been placed by DYRS. Deontra Gray, who was being supervised by DYRS in the community, had stopped showing up for court hearings and meetings with juvenile justice officials. And Sharif Lancaster, already under DYRS supervision for an earlier case, had been placed on probation and under the supervision of Court Social Services.

Judge William Jackson, the head of the family court, will be testifying at the hearing Friday before the council's human services committee.

Unlike DYRS, which is overseen by the D.C. Council, Court Social Services and the rest of the District's court system do not have to answer to the District government. Instead the local courts are funded by Congress.

Since the arrests of Gray, Lancaster and Saunders on May 3, The Post has been seeking data from D.C. Superior Court about Court Social Services, but little information has been forthcoming. Budget documents and annual reports provide a snapshot of the agency's operations but offer little insight into the year-to-year performance of the agency.

"Court Social Services might be doing a fabulous job," said Priscilla Skillman, who follows the juvenile justice system for the Council for Court Excellence. "But no one knows."

Absconders are the focus of Friday's hearing. Almost 8 percent, or 72 of the 920 offenders under DYRS supervision are unaccounted for, according to the agency. About 4 percent of the 1,700 to 1,800 offenders under Court Social Services supervision are similarly unaccounted for, according to D.C. Superior Court. And about 2,000 of the 16,000 people under the supervision of the adult probation agency are absconders, according to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.

With 140 employees and a budget of $17.6 million, Court Social Services is smaller than DYRS, which operates the city's two juvenile detention centers and has about 600 employees and a budget of about $90 million.

But the contrast belies the role that Court Social Services plays in the juvenile justice system. Not only does it screen newly arrested youths and advise juvenile judges and prosecutors, but Court Social Services supervises hundreds of youths, many of them on probation.

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