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SIMMONS: Can’t be a felon, he’s too young
Type the words "youth charged as adult" into a search engine, and you will stumble across cases across the nation in which juveniles have been charged as adults in violent crimes. But that is not the case in the District, where juveniles are treated as kids even if they are suspected in bloodbaths.
Is justice being served? Are summer jobs programs and more recreation facilities the answer when youths become predators?
The D.C. drive-by shooting that left four persons dead and five wounded occurred a week ago, and a 14-year-old suspected of driving the getaway van is scheduled to stand before a judge Wednesday. Yet, while this teen is a homicide suspect, he may never spend time in prison because the District is soft on crime.
The city doesn't follow the general law-and-order rule that serving time should fit the crime.
Here's a synopsis of the young lawbreaker and his extracurricular activities. (Let's call him "John" because the court hasn't released his name.)
Because of his age, John isn't considered a violent felon; the city puts him in the same classification as a kid who slings a dodgeball at his victims.
When John was 9 years old, his first offense was trying to steal a schoolmate's music player. For that, he was placed on two years' probation. Between that time and January of this year, John faced multiple charges of theft, receipt of stolen property and assault — including assault on a police officer. Because of his age, he was always placed under the care of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. He escaped from one of its facilities March 22.
Authorities found John on March 30 — after he and three men, according to police, sprayed a 9 mm pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle into a crowd. One news report says John is the brother of two suspects; a fourth unnamed man remains at large.
Not all states handle juvenile offenders with kid gloves. An Alabama teen suspected of killing a youth at a party was charged with murder the same day that John walked away from youth services detention. There were numerous other cases this month: A 14-year-old Janesville, Wis, girl was charged as an adult with reckless homicide for giving oxycodone to two boys, one of whom died; an Athens, Ga., teen was charged as an adult in the killing of a 68-year-old man. A Baltimore 14-year-old was charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and other charges for killing a man and stealing his cell phone.
John's case was sparked by the theft of a bracelet, which led to a series of revenge attacks culminating in last week's bloodbath.
A bracelet? A human life?
D.C. law puts both on equal footing, if you're a juvenile.
Indeed, John faces no more serious consequences in this bloodbath than in the violent crimes he already has admitted. That's because D.C. law prohibits the courts from handling youths under age 15 as adults. So John will have another day in family court, where he will face either probation — again — or be remanded to a juvenile facility — again.
Supporters of justice could force the city's hand this election year, when several citywide posts are up for grabs, including that of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who supports rehabilitating young lawbreakers.
The mayor and other city officials who have expressed outrage at the violence likely will attend the victims' funerals — which is ironic because a funeral is exactly why the bloodbath victims were huddled. They had just returned from a funeral for Jordan Howe, the man wrongly accused of stealing the bracelet. One of John'sbrothers also stands accused of gunning down Mr. Howe, who was just 20 years old.
Mr. Fenty helped rewrite juvenile justice laws as a D.C. Council member before he became mayor in 2007. He and the city's attorney general could easily put their heads together to make sure justice is served when juveniles commit heinous and wretched offenses — with and without bloodshed.
Sometimes young people are predators; sometimes they are prey. In either case, the time should fit the crime.
In the case of the March 30 bloodbath, the evidence for reform lies in the caskets and with the walking wounded.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...
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