By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 10:31 PM
Responding to a wave of high-profile District crimes involving juveniles, the D.C. Council approved sweeping legislation Monday that would allow the public to learn the names of violent criminals under age 18.
The bill, approved after months of internal debate among council members, undermines the long-standing practice of shielding the identities of youthful offenders who have not been charged as adults.
Under the legislation, which passed unanimously, complete juvenile records would still be sealed. But a juvenile's name and offense can be publicly released once that person has been convicted of a violent crime or a major property crime. Once a juvenile has been convicted, his or her personal information can be released for all subsequent arrests, even if there is no conviction for subsequent crimes.
The bill goes to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who has not signaled whether he will sign it.
Council members said that the law is needed to make it easier for police and youth and social service agencies to communicate with each other as they try to stem shootings and homicides involving juveniles. In several well-publicized cases, a juvenile has been arrested for new crimes after being released from the custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
"Our ultimate responsibility is to protect the public, and it cannot simply be to turn a blind eye to the free crime of violence," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). "Young people think they can act with impunity. They think there are no consequences."
Even after final approval of the bill on a voice vote, council members engaged in a heated debate about whether they were making it harder for youths to rehabilitate.
Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) pushed for an amendment that would have allowed for the public release of a juvenile's identity only after convictions for two major crimes.
Wells, backed by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), argued that the legislation would stigmatize a young offender for life, making it difficult to find a job or get accepted into college.
Wells cited statistics that show 94 percent of youth offenders live out the rest of their lives without being convicted of another crime. He also said he worried that teenagers arrested for relatively minor offense - such as throwing snowballs or kicking a rock at someone - could be susceptible to charges of assault with a deadly weapon and subsequently identified.
Wells's amendment was defeated by a vote of 9 to 4. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), the presumptive next mayor, joined the majority in voting down the amendment.
Although he preferred Wells's proposal, Mendelson said the bill as approved will make it easier for police to interact with residents about neighborhood crime.
"It means government officials . . . can't stand before a community group and say, 'I can't talk about that person,' " Mendelson said. "It's one of the things that happens now. Everyone knows Johnny . . . has a long conviction and arrest record, but they will not even admit who Johnny is."
But Matthew Fraidin, a professor at the School of Law at the University of the District of Columia, said the bill "demonizes kids" while continuing to shield the public from how the courts and DYRS oversee youth offenders.
"It's just pandering to the public without actually protecting and certainly without shining light on how DYRS is making its decisions," Fraidin said.