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D.C. Jail triples average of juvenile detentions

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The average number of juveniles held in the D.C. Jail in recent months is three times higher than last year, according to a study to be released today by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

The study shows that a daily average of 42 youths were awaiting trial, placement or sentencing in the District's adult detention facility in May compared with an average of 14 in May 2006.

In April, a daily average of 40 youths were held at the D.C. Jail, compared with an average of 11 during the same month last year. In March, a daily average of 37 youths were held at the jail, compared with an average of 12 in March last year.

Youth advocates are using the findings to call for continued reforms of the city's detention policies, saying that youths treated as adults in the justice system are more likely to commit other crimes upon their release or face hardships later in life.

"If there's a need to place a child pretrial in a facility, we think they'd be better off placed in a juvenile detention facility where staff are trained to work with young people ... and there are more supervised, constructive activities for them to be doing," said Liz Ryan, president and chief executive officer of the District-based nonprofit that conducted the study.

Officials estimate that as many as 200,000 juveniles nationwide are prosecuted as adults each year, and in most states the youths can be placed in adult jails before trial.

In the District, suspects younger than 18 are generally adjudicated in the D.C. Superior Court's Family Division, where they come under the purview of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and can be placed in a more rehabilitative environment if they are found to have committed a crime.

In some cases, suspects as young as 15 can be transferred to the court's Criminal Division, where they can be prosecuted for more serious crimes.

They are then generally detained in the city's adult jail, where boys are kept separate from adults but girls are not separated from adult female inmates.

Through May this year, the average length of stay in the D.C. Jail for juveniles was more than 100 days per booking, the study shows.

"To see that we have a growing number of youths in the adult jail, I don't believe makes the community any safer. And those youths certainly don't get any services or programs," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the council's Committee on Human Services. "It's really just writing them off."

Reforming the District's juvenile justice system has been a subject of debate for years.

In 2004, the council passed legislation that calls for closing the city's main youth detention facility — the Oak Hill Youth Center — by 2009 and replacing it with a newer facility.

Mr. Wells, whose committee has oversight of the youth rehabilitative services department, said the District is still working to obtain permits from Maryland to build a new facility on Oak Hill's current site in Anne Arundel County.

The study also recommends that the council prohibit the placement of youths in D.C. Jail by amending city laws, and Mr. Wells has spearheaded a study to track juveniles placed in the D.C. Jail and determine the outcomes of the practice.

"I want to see what's going on," Mr. Wells said. "I'm hoping that it shows this is not the solution to youth crime or youth violent crime."

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