- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

The District’s executive and legislative branches are pondering legislation that would reshape the city’s juvenile justice system. They think, however, that they are overhauling the system. They are not. The system is broken, and the children of today have outgrown the juvenile laws on the books, the majority of which have been in place since 1963. The city is seemingly moving toward a nanny state. We urge officials to switch direction.

D.C. law-enforcement officers and other agencies that handle delinquents and serious offenders generally take a tough-love stand — that they are mandated to use the “stick,” or incarceration, only as a last resort. Violent crime statistics and the brazen running gun battles in Northwest prove that such an approach does not work. (America’s capital has yet again become the murder capital.) Indeed, instead of putting young offenders and repeat offenders who happen to be juveniles behind bars, city leaders and child advocates prefer to make excuses and spend taxpayers’ precious dollars on diversion programs. To wit: Mayor Williams and Council member Jim Graham are proud of themselves for “finding” $400,000 to fund social service and recreational programs for Hispanic anti-gang activities. But what has been happening in our neighborhoods — bloodletting and rapes, robberies and beatings and defacing and destruction of public and personal property — will not be deterred by reaching out and touching these hardened criminals through government anti-gang programs. Many, if not most, of these dangerous offenders — young though they may be — should only be touched under the watchful eyes of prison guards.

Glimmers of hope are found in legislation put forward by Council member Kevin Chavous, who proposes, among other things, that the parents of young offenders face fines, the loss of driving privileges and the costs of restitution. We support those penalties.

However, legislation is needed to address the crux of the problem with the juvenile justice system, and that possibly entails dismantling the human services agency chiefly responsible for handling young offenders — the dysfunctional Youth Services Administration (YSA). It is a paradoxical stricture that, in and of itself, binds bureaucrats to seek costly social-service means to achieve what ought to be a law-and-order end.

While a parent’s or coach’s tough love might rehabilitate a teen caught playing hooky or missing curfew, Big Brother is sending the wrong message. City Hall needs to take off its rosy lenses and see young, tough criminals for what they really are — young, tough criminals.

The District’s juvenile justice system has been too lenient for far too long.

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