Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Opinion | A bleak summer message to D.C. youths: Your city is not safe

Opinion | A bleak summer message to D.C. youths: Your city is not safe

“It’s not safe in D.C.,” said veteran D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) during a WJLA-TV interview last week. “So, we’re going to ask people to keep their kids in until we create these safe environments.”

Practically every D.C. elected official, from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to at-large and ward council members, has weighed in on the surge of violence plaguing our nation’s capital. None till now, however, has assessed the situation as being so hopelessly dangerous that parents should keep their children indoors until leaders figure out how to make the streets safer. White’s own Ward 8 suffers the bulk of gun violence in the District. That might influence his condemnatory conclusions. But he is not alone.

Mashea M. Ashton, chief executive of Digital Pioneers Academy in Southeast, lost four students to gun violence in the just-concluded academic year. In a letter, Ashton, too, told parents that “the city is not safe.” D.C. “is in a crisis,” she said, and recommended that parents, “keep your children indoors in the evening and in supervised activities during the day.”

White and Ashton’s bleak verdict — “It’s not safe in D.C.” — is a judgment that cuts to the heart of childhood but also focuses on the quality of city governance.

This much is fact: Over 10 days recently, four youths in the city died by gunfire, reports The Post’s Peter Hermann. Twelve have been fatally shot in the first six months of the year, double the figure through this time last year. Violent crime in D.C. is up 28 percent, and with 117 homicide victims thus far since Jan. 1, the city is on track to exceed 200 homicides for the third consecutive year.

Whether this city is experiencing a surge in violence, especially involving children and teens, is not open to debate. Numbers speak for themselves. Homicides aside, more than 50 children and teens have been shot and survived this year, according to The Post. Teens are also among those pulling the trigger.

And summer’s just getting started.

So, too, is work in the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which is chaired by Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2). The committee is reviewing Bowser’s “Safer Stronger Amendment Act of 2023” anti-crime legislative package.

Bowser’s proposals, strongly backed by the office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C., increase penalties for firearms and violent crimes, enhance pretrial detention for violent crimes (including for juvenile offenders) and expand use of DNA in sexual assault cases. The bill also proposes changes to the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act that provides for “second look sentence reductions” for most serious violent crimes.

That proposed change is a real head-scratcher. There’s no evidence that D.C. residents who have come home after serving long sentences are contributing to the crime wave engulfing our city. In fact, according to D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb, since the law was passed in 2017, 155 residents have returned via the relief offered by the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act. More than 93 percent have not been charged with a new crime; most are contributing members of society. Why is that proposed change in a bill aimed at addressing D.C. crime on the rise?

This is among several Bowser anti-crime proposals that have drawn criticism, some of which was heard this week in a nearly 12-hour Judiciary Committee hearing that drew more than 160 witnesses, both pro and con.

The most vocal, and probably most prominent, opponent was Schwalb, a vital part of D.C.’s public safety ecosystem and the city’s chief juvenile justice prosecutor. Schwalb charged that the mayor’s proposal will do little to improve public safety. “The legislation defaults back to tried-and-failed policies that will not make us safer,” he said. “This bill will result in locking up more kids pre-trial even though there is no good data to suggest that kids who are released pre-trial are committing violent or serious offenses.” Schwalb contends that “incarcerating children leads to increased crime rates.”

The council should drill down on this.

The District’s history with juvenile detention is, as critics charge, long and dark. I traveled that tunnel as a journalist, witnessing the dismal Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill detention facilities, where rats, cockroaches and dysfunctional staff reigned supreme. I helped chronical the travails of court receivership, all the way to the opening of the New Beginnings Youth Development Center and the host of reforms enacted by the Omnibus Juvenile Justice Act. Has nothing changed?

Is Schwalb saying that the 24-hour supervision and comprehensive social services provided in New Beginnings are worthless? That the continuum of community-based placements that allow detained or supervised youths to receive treatment and supervision services in a structured, homelike environment are all for naught? The Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services asserts that fewer youths under its supervision are being rearrested. How does that square with the critics’ argument that detention fuels recidivism?

This is only one of the several claims and counterclaims about dealing with juvenile offenders that the council must examine as it weighs the mayor’s proposal. Lawmakers should also consider the millions of tax dollars spent in the name of dealing with “root causes” of violence.

Young, bloodied bodies are falling in the streets. Families and communities need protection.

Bowser has proposed. Now Pinto, her committee and the council need to get it right.

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