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D.C. confidentiality rules in juvenile cases threaten public safety

Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A18

POLICE WHO responded to Sunday's disturbance at the District's juvenile detention center in Laurel made what should have been a routine request. They wanted to view the facility's surveillance videos to determine responsibility for the assault of a staff member and other possible crimes. Instead, they ended up in court because the city's confidentiality laws for juvenile offenders precluded release -- even to the police -- of this material. How much more absurd does the situation have to get before the D.C. Council does something about rules that show more regard for those who break the law than those who need its protection?

A worker at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center had his jaw broken and three other staff members received minor injuries in the hour-long melee. It appears the incident started when a group of youths objected to the end of a basketball game and refused to return to their housing units; some climbed on the facility's roof. A worker was punched in the jaw, reportedly by a 20-year-old, and police from Maryland and the District restored order. Their investigation was momentarily stymied when the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which runs New Beginnings, cited the District's confidentiality statute in refusing to make information available. The office of the attorney general went to D.C. Superior Court Monday to obtain an order for its release.

There are good reasons for protecting the privacy of youths who commit crimes; mainly, so they can have the chance of rebuilding their lives without the lifelong stigma of their youthful offenses. But the District's laws are overly broad and unusually strict, making it a crime for anyone to release any information about a juvenile case. This contrast was vividly illustrated when Maryland authorities released arrest records of the three suspects charged in the murder of D.C. principal Brian Betts while D.C. officials were constrained in even acknowledging the youths were under the supervision of youth rehabilitation services.

Attorney General Peter Nickles, who is conducting a review of the juvenile justice system, told us that he's increasingly convinced that strict confidentiality laws harm public safety by shrouding the system in such secrecy that public confidence is undermined. And, as council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) argues, confidentiality has the perverse effect of hampering efforts to help youths by keeping information from people who could use it. Wouldn't teachers, pastors and coaches, he asks, be better able to help at-risk youths if they knew what was going on in their lives? Instead, the law prevents youth rehabilitation officials or police from alerting anyone to a potential problem. Mr. Wells is sponsoring legislation that would relax these rules. The only question the council should be asking is whether the changes go far enough.

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