A D.C. Council committee considering broad reforms in the juvenile justice system voted yesterday to endorse a bill that would shutter the city's current youth detention center within four years.
But the Judiciary Committee stopped short of approving the most controversial proposal on the table: making it easier to charge 15-year-old offenders as adults. The bill, which will go before the full council in the fall, includes other changes aimed at aiding victims of juvenile offenders and making offenders and their parents more accountable.
The legislation calls for the Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, the juvenile detention center, to be replaced with smaller facilities that meet national standards. The detention center has been the subject of a long-running lawsuit against the city, with advocates for juveniles alleging poor conditions, drug activities and chronic mismanagement.
Oak Hill has become emblematic of the juvenile justice system's problems. Closing it would mark a significant symbolic step in the larger reform effort envisioned in the legislation, which was introduced last fall at the request of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
The failure of the proposal to ease the limits on charging 15-year-olds as adults was a victory for advocates alarmed at the drive to try juveniles at earlier and earlier ages and was a blow to many local law enforcement officials, who say many young offenders scoff at the relatively minor penalties they face for serious crimes.
Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the judiciary committee, said that the proposal had only limited support and that the opposition was considerable. To keep a 15-year-old from being transferred to adult court, defense attorneys would have been required by the measure to prove that the juvenile was not a danger to the public and could be rehabilitated.
The overall bill, Patterson said, is "very strong" and an important step. "I think it moves forward where legislation can make a difference," Patterson said.
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he was "disappointed" and "confused" by the decision not to ease the charging of 15-year-olds as adults. "In one sense, the council is saying do more to stop juvenile crime, particularly auto theft . . . and then turn around and not pass tougher laws that will really send a clear message to juveniles that commit crimes," Ramsey said.
The bill, however, does include a provision that would speed up the proceedings that determine if a 15-year-old should be charged as an adult. With a fixed timetable, the decisions would not be dragged out over months or even years, as critics say has sometimes been the case.
The U.S. attorney's office has the discretion to charge as adults 16- and 17-year-olds accused of certain crimes. But in cases involving 15-year-olds, the city must show that the person is beyond rehabilitation -- a threshold that was intended to be difficult to meet and that would remain law.
The bill passed by the Judiciary Committee includes a new provision that clears the way for juveniles who miss court hearings to face criminal charges. Parents of juvenile offenders could be ordered to submit to drug testing and possibly undergo treatment. And juveniles and their families could be ordered to pay restitution for some offenses.
The bill also would grant prosecutors, victims and some other parties greater access to information about the juveniles charged. But it would not, as the mayor had proposed, allow access to what are known as social files.
Such files can contain intimate information about the juveniles, including family psychological histories. The D.C. Public Defender Service, which represents many juveniles charged with serious crimes, had objected to many elements of the proposal to expand access.
A related bill that would expand public access to juvenile delinquency proceedings is expected to be taken up by the Judiciary Committee this summer.