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Angry Youths Give D.C. Council Earful

By Sewell Chan

Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and The Washington Post.

The high school sophomore said he was incredulous when he heard about a proposal that would allow delinquents and their families to be kicked out of public housing. Such a punishment, he said, would only hurt families while doing little to address why their children commit crimes.

"How would these hard-working minorities get to work?" asked Jose Andrade, 17, who attends Bell Multicultural Senior High School, during a D.C. Council hearing yesterday. "How would they cash their checks?"

Several hundred teenagers and young adults rotated through the council chamber, nearly all critical of five juvenile justice bills before the council's Judiciary Committee.

The teenagers, along with several juvenile justice experts and advocates, focused their ire on three proposals.

Two of them, proposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), would make it easier to transfer juveniles to adult criminal court. The third bill, sponsored by council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), would punish the parents of delinquents by allowing the city to suspend their driver's licenses, fine them as much as $500 and evict them from public housing.

The bills were drafted in response to recent juvenile crimes and reports of mismanagement at the Oak Hill Youth Center and at group homes.

Council members appeared to be divided on the merits of the bills, with some calling for more study of the issues. One member, Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), introduced a measure Tuesday that would force the city to close Oak Hill.

In addition to making it easier to try 15-year-olds as adults, the mayor's proposal would grant crime victims and police limited access to juvenile records, make it a crime for juveniles to fail to appear in court and allow involuntary hospitalization of children deemed not competent to stand trial.

Aides to the mayor say the measure would hold children accountable and give crime victims more rights. Corporation Counsel Robert J. Spagnoletti, whose office prosecutes juvenile crimes, is scheduled to testify when the two-day hearing continues today.

Wallace J. Mlyniec, who co-chairs the American Bar Association's juvenile justice committee, said the mayor's bill is inconsistent with the 2001 recommendations of a juvenile justice commission that Williams appointed. "By placing youth in adult courts and prisons, we are shirking our own responsibilities and putting them under the tutelage of adult criminals," said Mlyniec, an associate dean at Georgetown University Law Center.

Mlyniec said the city should focus on its facilities for juveniles. "They are abysmal," he said. "They are jokes. They are so failing at their jobs as to be themselves a hazard to the children consigned to them."

Malcolm C. Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that generally opposes incarceration, said that juveniles tried as adults are treated more harshly, and with fewer legal protections, than adults. "The fate of children hangs on what you are considering," he said.

Many teenagers applauded when David Doi, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, noted that minority youngsters are prosecuted and punished at higher rates than white youths.

"The deeper you get into the system, the more colored it becomes," said Doi, whose coalition represents government-appointed advisory groups from across the country.

Marita Michael, whose 16-year-old son, Devin M. Fowlkes, was shot to death outside Anacostia Senior High School in October, expressed support for tougher prosecutions. Her son's alleged killer, who was 15 at the time, is being tried as a juvenile.

"In five years, you can't be rehabilitated," said Michael, referring to the limit on juvenile sentences, which expire at age 21. "It takes a lifetime." The chamber fell silent as Michael, wearing an orange shirt and a head scarf, calmly testified.

Chavous said he is struggling with the bills. "I believe that the government needs to own up to its responsibility to treat children better when they come into our care and custody," Chavous said. "We've been warehousing kids and treating kids despicably."

However, Chavous said, crime victims want action. "That pressure from the community is real," he said.

Another proposal, which would ban the sale of spray paint to children, also drew criticism. Vanessa Montiel, 16, a junior at Bell, said that many students there like to draw. Some of them paint graffiti, but not because they are gang members, as council members suggested.

On the other hand, Montiel said in Spanish, "gang members do not have to write on walls to be arguing."

Copyright 2004, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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