ON THE OPPOSITE page today, Judith W. Rogers, corporation counsel for the District, responds to criticism of her office's handling of juvenile crime. The criticism comes, in part, from a report of the District of Columbia Bar. While the Bar committee's report found some fault with the corporation counsel, that office was not its main target -- nor should it have been. The roots of this go deeper than any possible derelictions by one particular agency. The whole juvenile justice system is scandalously lax and inadequate. For evidence, the exhibits begin with a shortage of juvenile prosecutors in the corporation counsel (a staff of only 14, where Mrs. Rogers says 50 are needed), a shortage of judges and a shortage of programs to rehabilitate juvenile offenders.
The committee feels that the juvenile system is blindly accepting any young person who gets into any sort of trouble -- no matter how minor -- and consequently not doing much to help any of the children, especially those with serious problems who need large doses of individual attention. The committee says that about 50 percent of all juveniles arrested in the city are detained, in comparison with a detention rate of only 20 percent for adults. And the juveniles detained are held, according to the commission's study of 200 random cases, an average of 146 days before a hearing is set. That violates a court rule requiring that a hearing be set in juvenile cases in less than 140 days.
To improve the juvenile justice system, the committee recommends that there be closer scrutiny of every juvenile case. The committee would require the judges to release all juveniles unless they 1) were charged with a felony or a violent crime, 2) have a record or another felony charge pending, 3) have escaped a detention facility. For those children who are locked up by the court, the committee asks that the juvenile fact-finding hearing (the equivalent of an adult trial) be held within 30 calendar days instead of 146 days for detained juveniles.
To improve rehabilitation for those children who are held in detention, the group asks that fewer children be held in maximum security. Last year, over a third of juvenile detainees were held in maximum security, more than twice the level set in a 1970 court order. Finally, the group asks that judges regularly visit the detention facilities to see where they are sending the children and that the District's Department of Human Services expand its programs enabling children to remain outside of detention facilities while awaiting a hearing.
The Bar report also focused on the juvenile justice system's handling of child neglect cases and found that a generally low-grade of lawyers handles those cases because the pay is so low; that judges are untrained in dealing with child neglect so they generally do not know what can be done for neglected children other than to put them away, and that the court takes so long to resolve most neglect cases that it does harm to those in its jurisdiction.
An old familiar story? Sadly, it is; and what is wrong goes well beyond a staff shortage in the corporation counsel's office. This is a systemic problem that can only be solved by public officials -- the mayor, the school superintendent, the police chief, judges and Congress -- giving juvenile crime and child neglect top priority come budget time. Left unattended, juvenile crime grows into adult crime (now climbing steadily higher in the city), and undermines the safety of everyone on the street.