Slaying case calls attention to D.C. court agency

By Henri E. Cauvin
Friday, May 21, 2010; B02

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 local law enforcement circles, Court Social Services, the family court's probation arm, is all but unknown.

So when teenagers 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 teenager charged in the case.

On Friday, the D.C. Council committee that oversees the executive-branch agency, the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services, will be asking questions about the Betts case -- 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. They all had lengthy juvenile arrest records. And all were wanted by authorities April 15, when Betts was robbed and killed 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 one case, had been placed on probation and under the supervision of Court Social Services for another.

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.

Judge William M. Jackson, the head of the family court, is scheduled to testify at the hearing Friday before the council's human services committee.

Since the arrests of Gray, Lancaster and Saunders on May 3, The Washington 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 will be the focus of Friday's hearing. Of the offenders under DYRS supervision, 72 of 920, or almost 8 percent, are unaccounted for. About 4 percent of the 1,700 to 1,800 offenders under Court Social Services supervision are similarly unaccounted for, officials said.

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 Court Social Services screen newly arrested youths and advise juvenile judges and prosecutors, but it also supervises hundreds of youths, many of them on probation.

In response to requests for information, spokeswoman Leah H. Gurowitz said the court did not know how many people under Court Social Services supervision were arrested in each of the past five years.

The lack of available data, Skillman said, leaves advocates, officials and ordinary citizens in the dark about a vital part of a system that is inevitably thrust into the spotlight when a juvenile is implicated in a high-profile crime. "It makes it difficult for the community at large to understand how the juvenile justice system operates," Skillman said. "It's a big mystery."

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield said the court takes its responsibility for juvenile probation "very seriously." Satterfield said the court prepares monthly, quarterly and annual performance reports and commissions independent reviews, including one on recidivism, which is being conducted by the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said the lack of transparency and accountability plagues many part of the criminal justice system in the District. "It's not just the juvenile justice system," he said.

Many critical decisions are made out of the public eye, he said, especially in the juvenile system, where most proceedings and documents are confidential. And key parts of the District's criminal justice system are out of direct local control, from the U.S. attorney's office, which prosecutes most serious offenses, to the adult probation agency, which is federally funded.

"The agencies that make decisions . . . are not as open to public scrutiny as they ought to be," Mendelson said.

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