Juvenile justice agency a test for Gray
Monday, December 20, 2010
Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray can only hope that better times are ahead for the District's juvenile justice agency.
For nearly a year, he has watched from his seat on the City Council as one crisis after another has buffeted the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. At least a dozen wards under its care have been charged with murder this year, according to the agency. At least 10 others have been homicide victims.
The number of juveniles placed with the department continues to rise. New Beginnings, a facility that opened last year for long-term juvenile detainees, is overcrowded. The department's relations with D.C. Superior Court and its juvenile probation unit are strained. W ith the resignation last week of yet another interim director, no fewer than four people may, by year's end, have headed the agency since January.
As mayor, Gray (D) will inherit responsibility for all the problems of an agency that, improved as it is from five years ago, still struggles to supervise and rehabilitate the city's youngest offenders. After the events of the past year, the city is again debating its obligation to help and its inclination to punish.
"It's a balance; it's got to be a balance," Gray said in a brief interview last week. "I think the trick is finding what the right balance is."
Even when the crime rate overall is falling or flat, a killing by a juvenile can seize the public's imagination in a way few other crimes do. Accordingly, DYRS has an outsize role in shaping perceptions of just how safe the District is.
Outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) saw that this year.
After a fatal drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street on March 30, the administration faced a barrage of questions about the DYRS, which had been supervising the 14-year-old charged as the getaway driver.
The youth was exonerated a few weeks later, but by then the criticism had taken on a life of its own.
Fenty and DYRS were on the defensive, and they would remain there. Weeks later, a teen who had walked away from a DYRS group home was charged with killing a well-liked D.C. school principal.
The pressure divided the administration. Fenty had been a champion of the reform effort, which focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. But his attorney general and confidant, Peter Nickles, emerged as a vocal critic of DYRS.
With the mayoral primary a couple of months away, Fenty decided to oust the DYRS director, Marc A. Schindler, and replace him with the city's chief juvenile prosecutor, Robert Hildum. Hildum, in turn, resigned last week after it became clear he was a long shot to lead the agency under Gray.