Proposal would identify youths after second serious crime

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

For juvenile delinquents in the District, it could soon be two strikes and you're out.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the public safety committee, is set to propose legislation this week that would make public the identity of any juvenile offender after a second serious crime.

It would be a radical shift for a juvenile justice system grounded in rehabilitation, and it comes as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Mendelson and others city leaders face election-year criticism over their handling of juvenile crime.

Under Mendelson's proposal, after a juvenile is found involved in a second serious offense, the case -- and all of the juvenile's previous arrests in the District -- would become public. The list of qualifying "serious" or "dangerous" offenses is long, including assault, arson, robbery, sexual abuse and murder.

The public record would include the charges filed by police and by prosecutors, and the disposition, including whether the juvenile was placed on probation with D.C. Superior Court Social Services or committed to the custody of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

"It's about the community being able to get some information and the responsible government agencies having to answer for their actions," Mendelson said.

But some juvenile justice advocates worry that the changes are being rushed through in the emotional wake of several high-profile homicides. "People, even when crime is going down, get inflamed by leaders who say, 'We've got to do something about juvenile crime,' " said professor Joseph B. Tulman, director of the juvenile justice clinic at the University of the District of Columbia.

Mendelson says his proposed changes would address concerns of residents that confidentiality shields most juveniles from public scrutiny.

Under District law, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds accused of serious crimes such as homicide and rape can be charged in adult court. Mendelson's bill would not change that rule, which is similar in many jurisdictions, including Maryland. But it would open juvenile cases to a new level of public scrutiny.

Attorney General Peter Nickles, whose office handles most juvenile prosecutions, has talked about the need for changes. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who oversees the juvenile justice agency, wants police to have broader authority to share information about young offenders with clergy, coaches and others who work with them. And council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who oversees the mental health system, has commissioned a review of adolescent violence in the District.

The swirl of activity comes five years into an effort to turn the focus of the District's troubled juvenile justice system away from incarceration and toward rehabilitation. It is an effort that Fenty endorsed as the council member overseeing DYRS and that he has continued to back as mayor.

But Wells has warned that the reform efforts and the considerable progress could lose steam if government does not keep tabs on juvenile delinquents, which is why he supports more public scrutiny of the system. "I think it's a little hard to ask the city to support reform of the juvenile justice system, but then we can't tell you much about it," Wells said in an interview.

Critics say that such information will not make communities any safer and will hurt juveniles the system is supposed to be helping. "It's essentially adultifying the system," Tulman said.

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