Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Opinion | How can so many D.C. youths die while under court supervision?

Opinion | How can so many D.C. youths die while under court supervision?

“During approximately the past six weeks, five D.C. youth under CSSD [D.C. Superior Court’s Family Court Social Services Division] electronic monitoring have been killed.” I’m quoting here from an Oct. 30 email to me from the Office of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice.

Think about that. These arrested youths were deemed to be at sufficiently low risk of violent crime and adequately supported by guardians to get outfitted with electronic bracelets and sent back on the streets — only to be slain over the course of six weeks.

Last month, Lindsey Appiah, the deputy mayor for public safety, briefed a government panel on two juvenile homicide victims who were also under court supervision. (Appiah’s staff did not make clear whether these two were included in the five noted above.)

Appiah said the first was a student who had several pending charges, including burglary and threats to do bodily harm, stemming from cases last year and this year. The juvenile had been associated with additional robberies. The youth’s school had asked for a safety transfer from another school for an undisclosed reason. Just three days after arriving there, the youth was shot and killed in an altercation outside the school.

The second juvenile homicide victim faced charges of carrying a pistol without a license, possession of unregistered ammunition and robbery from cases this year, according to Appiah. That juvenile had no fixed address, so CSSD asked that the youth be held pending trial, but the judge denied the request. Instead, the youth (who was not attending school) and the youth’s mother were staying with friends and relatives at the time of the homicide.

Which raises the question, what in the world does it mean to be under court supervision? Does it come with conditions besides wearing an ankle bracelet? How are youths being monitored?

A disclaimer: The city is strict about maintaining youth confidentiality and does not disclose the involvement of particular individuals in the juvenile justice system. And for good reason. The overall objective of the system is to successfully rehabilitate and reintegrate young people into the community. Safeguarding information about youths in trouble is important to that outcome.

That said, there is information that the public deserves to know about youths under court supervision.

Such as data on the number — not the identities — of juvenile shooting victims over the past couple of years who were under court supervision. I learned that Appiah has compiled that information. But this week, I was told by her staff that data and analysis of that nature are shared only with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a federally funded independent conglomeration of D.C. and U.S. government criminal justice entities that periodically meets to discuss city crime matters — and, in my view, study them to death.

The D.C. juvenile justice system is hampered by a soft underbelly: a flabby sense of accountability.

That problem is on full display in the case of a 15-year-old girl who was a passenger in one of two carjacked vehicles that crashed in Northeast Washington on Oct 26. A 16-year-old girl driving the other car was killed.

In a news conference, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) took out after D.C. Superior Court Judge Andrea Hertzfeld for allowing the 15-year-old to be on the streets, because the girl, according to Bowser, had been previously charged in six or seven carjacking incidents and thus should have been held in secure detention.

Hertzfeld said the girl had been ordered held in a Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) shelter home but that there were no beds available in that nonsecure setting. So, the judge had the girl released to her parents.

Bowser maintained that DYRS did have secure detention space available but said the judge had instead wanted to place the 15-year-old “in a shelter environment that is not secure.” Bowser said, “In my opinion, you’ve been arrested for the seventh time in a carjacking, that” — meaning jail-like confinement — “is where you belong.”

Which might be well and good. Except the mayor had incorrect information: The 15-year-old girl in question had not been charged with so many carjackings, according to a subsequent review of court records by The Post; rather, the girl had been charged with multiple robberies.

Moreover, Bowser’s insistence that the judge should have used her own authority to place the girl in secure detention reflects a misunderstanding of the law. According to a court official, judges are prohibited by statute from increasing the level of detention for juveniles when D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb’s (D) office does not ask for “a step-up,” or secure confinement. In the 15-year-old girl’s case, that request wasn’t made. Hertzfeld determined that the girl’s placement in a shelter house was appropriate, with the attorney general’s concurrence.

Asked to comment on the mayor’s representation about both the girl and the court’s responsibilities, Appiah wrote, “Whether it’s one or multiple [violent crimes committed], we continue to believe that courts should consider secure detention for youth engaged with these types of dangerous and criminal behaviors. Because of confidentiality, I can’t further comment on the specific details of these cases.”

There’s a good case, however, for getting facts straight before sending a mayor, who is essential to the criminal justice ethos, out before the cameras. And there’s an even stronger case for a hard-nosed review of juvenile pretrial processes and procedures and court social services — including of what the court’s social services division is failing to do.

Five young people on electronic monitoring killed in the past six weeks? Good gracious.

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