Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers, in response to the D.C. Bar report criticizing her office, spoke with members of the editorial page staff. These are excerpts from their conversation.
Q. Forty percent of the crime in the city is committed by juveniles, and yet you have only 14 people in the juvenile division. why?
A. Well, to begin with, the office is comparable to a state attorney general's office, a county prosecutor and municipal attorney -- the only thing we do not have responsibility for are the felony and misdemeanor prosecutions done by the U.S. attorney.
Yet over the years, the authorized strength, for the office has gone from 185 down to 155. In fiscal year 1980, we were only funded initially for 143 positions, and the mayor's savings program, which involved all the freezes on hirings, etc., cut us down to 132. Yet we have maintained the strength in juvenile at 14.
Allegations were made in the report that we do not appear at the most critical hearings. But those are the disposition hearings, when the judge has to decide what is in the best rehabilitative interest of the child. That is a decision to be based not on legal evidence but on social worker recommendations, a social report, the probation report. So with our limited resources, we have directed our attention to presenting the factual basis for the judge to make a disposition. Also, we have had now for just under two years the major offenders' program, where we do appear at the disposition hearings.
I have no philosophical differences with the position taken by the committee report; indeed, I welcome any support that the Bar can provide to help us get the resources we need. But I think the impression left that nothing has happened is mistaken, at least since I have been here.
Q. When you got to the mayor, what kind of response do you get?
A. I get a positive response, but I don't get total support for everything I'm asking for. There is a just a limit to what the city can spend, and the mayor is balancing a lot of priorities. But when I got here in April 1979, there were basic deficiencies in the office. Basic things have been done. For example, we did not have rigorous employee evaluations; we didn't have a rotation program for professional development; we didn't have a promotion program that got the good people into key positions; we didn't have a regular recruitment program. And let me say, I am very concerned about the statement about political patronage. There is no evidence of that, and our system is not hap-hazard.
We have a system of recruitment involving all of the law schools in the area; we have set up guidelines, we documented work load, we've asked the deputies all to submit monthly reports, and we will be putting out the first annual report that the office has ever had. In that first year we were able to have some rational basis for arguing with the mayor when he was cutting back employees throughout the city, not only not to cut us but to give us additional resources.
Sixty percent of the crime in the District is being handled by the U.S. attorney's office. He estimates he has approximately 100 attorneys devoted to that. Now I will concede that there are complexities in adult cases that may not always be involved in juvenile cases. If you took that as a basic statistic, then we would be talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 attorneys in the juvenile section, if juveniles are commiting 40 percent of the crime.
The difference between this office and most federal agencies -- and certainly the private agencies -- is that the support capability is way lower. We have one support person for two attorneys. In the U.S. attorney's office, they would have two professionals and three support people. In most of your law firms, you will have three support people for one professional.
Q. You're competing with those groups for talent. Is this a problem ?
A. We have a very good people in here; we are continuing to get them. The work load is the problem. We went to the D.C. Bar and got an opinion from them setting up a pro bono program in the office, whereby members of the private Bar can take cases as volunteers, and we hope to get that started next year. The extent to which that's successful depends a lot on participation by the private Bar.
Q. You could give more of the juvenile cases to the U.S. attorney's office.
A. Only by waiving them from treatment as adults. But that means they got records; they get put in adult penal institutions. Even though I am not happy with what's going on, it's better to try to make some effort to turn a child around before he or she gets branded as an adult felon or misdemeanant, because you can't get rid of that. As a child and a juvenile, you have a little help.
One other key point: the Bar committee says we're detaining too many. First of all, the judges detain -- i don't have any say over that. The Bar report says we detain too much; the community is saying we don't detain enough. You go out into the community where the elderly and the citizens are being victimized as they see it by the young kids on the street. They want the city to take even a stronger hand in terms of getting kids off the street.
Q. According to the report, five to 11 times as many young people are being held in some public facility as are ever found guilty of any crime.
A. The report states that because we don't have enough assistance around, more and more kids are beng detained because of continuances. But the continuances, the overwhelming majority of then, are made not by us, but by defense counsels who want additional time, or because of conflicts of scheduling or postponements by the court.
We're talking about a critical problem for this city -- what happens to the young people in this community determines what happens to the future of the city. This office understands, at least I do, what our responsibility is. But I want people to recognize what our responsibility is in terms of presenting the legal case to the court. The court will make a decision, but then it is the city's responsibility, not this office's to provide rehabilitative facilities.
Q. It has been said that this office is trying to keep as many cases as it can because it wants to make the case for home rule, for taking over the U.S. attorney's functions.
A. I've never heard that. I fought against lowering the age for juvenile offenders simply because you're in effect throwing in the towel on these young people. It's better to try to make an effort with these young people than just to say at the age of 14 or 15 that we're going to treat them as adults.
We had a decision out of the federal district court here involving the maximum security unit at Lorton, where the judge found cruel and unusual punishment. That system is not designed to help people who really are below the age of majority. There is great frustration about rehabilitative resources. It is very hard to get funding for the rehabilitative/social end of things. You can get it for the police department; you can get it for your adult prosecutors. But when you're talking about juveniles, you're talking about social services, and it is very difficult in the order of priorities to get the money you need.
Since home rule, the work load of this office has mushroomed. You've had over 700 laws enacted, you've had new departments and programs created, you've had an enormous number of administrative proceedings established, including rent control and consumer protection.
Q. Given all these frustrations, can the city handle the entire criminal prosecution process it seeks to assume from the federal government?
A. No question about it. The Carter administration proposal called for a transfer not only of staff but of resources. The District of Columbia has paid for local services of the U.S. attorney's office and the U.S. marshal's office. All we're talking about now is bringing all those resources into District agencies.