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As carjackings spike in D.C. and Prince George’s, officials focus on youths

From left, Prince George’s County Police Chief Malik Aziz, D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks gather to spotlight a concern in carjackings. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article mistakenly said that D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s office, which prosecutes all juvenile crimes, began partnering with Prince George’s State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy’s office this month through their Multi-Jurisdictional Crime Task Force. They began partnering in January 2021.

Police and political leaders from the District and neighboring Prince George’s County are calling for healing, accountability and an overhaul of the criminal justice “ecosystem” in their communities as carjackings continue to spike two years into the pandemic — most notably among young people.

Both the District and the county have seen an extraordinary uptick in carjackings since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. In 2019, police in the District recorded 142 carjackings and Prince George’s reported 100. But last year, those totals had spiked to 426 in D.C. and 394 in the county.

One month into 2022 and the trend is continuing, police said.

Officials said Wednesday their primary concern remains the number of juveniles — kids 17 and under — who are being arrested for these crimes. In 2021, 85 of the 132 carjacking arrests in the District, and 86 of the 152 arrests in the county, were juveniles.

“Children committing crimes isn’t just one person’s responsibility,” said Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D). “As we work in government with the courts, the police department and each other, we cannot hope to solve this problem with these tools alone. What the numbers tells us is that our complex and interconnected society, our ecosystem, is damaged, and when an entire ecosystem is damaged we need everyone involved to come to the table to fix it.”

Someone tapped on his car window, then pointed a gun. It was yet another carjacking in the D.C. region.

Alsobrooks spoke alongside D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), D.C. Police Department Chief Robert J. Contee III and Prince George’s Police Chief Malik Aziz on Wednesday morning at a lengthy and passionate news conference in Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington, near the border with Maryland. They said the continued rise in violent crime in both jurisdictions are inextricably linked and vowed to continue sharing information, strategies and responsibility for solutions.

“We know that crime doesn’t recognize borders,” Bowser said. “We also know that our kids involved in crimes in D.C. and in Prince George’s County are crossing the border. D.C. kids in Prince George’s, Prince George’s kids in D.C.”

Though officials lamented a rise in juveniles arrested in carjacking cases, it’s difficult for the public to determine whether the hundreds of carjackings that have remained unsolved were proportionately committed by juveniles or adults. And because juvenile court proceedings are confidential, it’s difficult to discern whether juveniles arrested in carjackings later have their charges dropped.

Contee and Aziz outlined the work done to share information between departments and pursue carjackers who move between their border. Both agencies are also participating in multiple carjacking task forces, including one with their federal counterparts.

But the chiefs vocalized a shared frustration they said their officers are seeing: some of the kids they are arresting are “repeat offenders” who don’t seem deterred by the potential consequences of their actions. The chiefs questioned why young offenders are being released back into the community and whether they are getting the supervision and resources to stop them from carjacking again.

When asked at the news conference, police could not immediately provide data on how many people arrested in carjacking incidents had recently faced other charges. No judges or prosecutors from either jurisdiction were present at the news conference Wednesday, but both the D.C. attorney general and the state’s attorney in Prince George’s County have previously outlined their own plans for tackling youth violent crime.

Teens drive brutal spike in carjackings with covid limiting school and supervision

In Prince George’s, State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy focused much of last summer on addressing carjackings and juvenile violence, working with community organizers to broadcast commercials targeting young people and hosting neighborhood events focused on community. Her office also launched its own carjacking task force last year.

Alsobrooks added that her office has been working with Braveboy and Prince George’s Chief Circuit Court Judge Sheila Tillerson Adams on juvenile issues.

The county executive’s latest effort, Hope in Action Anti-Violence Project, will provide up to $50,000 in grant money to nonprofit organizations working to curb violence. Part of that effort will address reentry and rehabilitation resources for first time offenders and non-adjudicated youth — and will include working directly with families in the community.

“You can’t heal children without also healing their families,” Alsobrooks said.

In the District, Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s office, which prosecutes all juvenile crimes, began partnering with Braveboy’s office in Prince George’s in January 2021 through their Multi-Jurisdictional Crime Task Force. In January 2020, Racine’s office set up a 24/7 hotline run by prosecution supervisors to advise D.C. police officers on how to handle a carjacking crime scene to ensure they could bring a strong case.

Bowser said the city is addressing youth violence through Building Blocks, her administration’s signature initiative meant to coordinate resources and prevention efforts in the 151 blocks in the city where much of the gunfire occurs. The mayor also mentioned the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and its New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a 60-bed facility for committed juveniles, as places where reentry work is being done.

When asked which parts of the system are still broken, Alsobrooks answered for the group.

“All of it, if you ask me,” she said.

Contee and Aziz said youths need to face more accountability.

“I’m pleading to the community as a father,” Contee said, talking about how he handles his own children when they step out of line. “There’s accountability that comes along with the love I show them.”

With carjackings on the rise, this trio of fed-up strangers intervened

He and Aziz both said they support diversion efforts as long as the community is kept safe, but people must earn the privilege to rehabilitate at home.

“Sometimes you gotta rehab on the inside until they can prove they can live among us on the outside,” Aziz said. “They deserve a brighter future, but they also deserve accountability.”

And at a time of robust conversations about both rising violent crime and public safety reform, Aziz said he was frustrated that the other “cogs” in the criminal justice machine don’t receive, in his view, as much scrutiny.

“If we don’t act as a collective fist, as a collective entity, as a collective ecosystem,” Aziz said, “then we will fail.”