- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

It has been two decades since the District made any substantial changes to its juvenile-justice laws. Because of the laws currently on the books, most teen-agers, even those who commit murder and run violent gangs, are tried as children. The mindset of policy-makers that most of those juveniles can be rehabilitated has stymied reform efforts and contributed to the high crime rates. We hope that, with Mayor Tony Williams and the D.C. Council collaborating on several legislative proposals, city leaders will finally begin to crack down on youth offenders.

While the several bills before the council necessarily propose changing everything from curfew hours to trying murderous juveniles as adults and parental accountability, the legislation submitted by the mayor is the most comprehensive. The Omnibus Juvenile Justice, Victim’s Rights and Parental Participation Act of 2003 (B15-0537) addresses “some critical issues that face our juvenile justice system,” the mayor said. Some of those critical issues include strengthening the strong arm of the law when adjudicating and prosecuting youths, and streamlining the bureaucracy before and after juveniles are remanded to the Department of Human Services’ Youth Services Administration (YSA), which is the agency chiefly responsible for young offenders. For example, current law denies prosecutors subpoena authority of juveniles and impedes criminal investigations by forbidding social-service authorities from even disclosing the whereabouts of certain youths who may be witnesses or involved in crimes.

“Young violent offenders,” the mayor said, “pose a substantial and recurring threat to the safety of our community.” Yet almost all such offenders are treated with kid gloves. Earlier this fall, for example, a 15-year-old fatally shot a student-athlete. The defendant claims the shooting was an accident because he meant to shoot two other boys. So, here were two youths who shot at one youth, and that youth retaliated against them, only for a young innocent to pay with his life. Indeed, the young gunman is being tried as a youth, which means even if this killer is convicted, he must be released by the young ripe age of 21.

Critics of the various juvenile-justice bills claim that toughening the laws is unwarranted, arguing that juvenile crime is not on the rise and that all young offenders should be treated as children. Some espousing this soft-on-crime approach also argue that trying children as adults is no deterrent to juvenile crime.

Staring down the barrel of a gun held by a juvenile doesn’t make a victim feel any safer than facing an adult gunman. It’s time that the District holds killers and assailants responsible for their violent actions. Instead of making excuses for youths in the name of social-service programs, officials must give police and prosecutors the tools they need to prevent and solve crimes. The bills now before the council move the District in that direction.

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