by James Wright
AFRO Staff Writer
Two of the D.C. City Council’s key committee chairmen are co-sponsoring a bill that would remove offenders below the age of 18 out of the D.C. jail and give judges more latitude in sentencing them for adult crimes.
Councilmembers Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who lead the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee and Committee on Human Services, respectively, decided to sponsor a bill, the Juvenile Justice Improvement Amendment Act of 2008, after the two held a joint hearing on the topic of “Youth Incarcerated at the D.C. Jail” on July 14. The hearing came on the heels of a report released by Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) which criticized the practice of kids and adults sharing the same jails.
“We want to see what is in the best interest of the kids,” Wells said. “We want to know what benefit is it, if any, to have kids in the same jail as adults. Even though these kids have committed crimes, they are still kids and should be treated differently than adult criminals.
“We want to see what options are available to us to combat this problem.”
The act would authorize the Criminal Division of the D.C. Superior Court to consider whether a child who is charged as an adult should be adjudicated as a juvenile, and prohibit any juvenile from being detained in an adult facility.
More than 40 states permit youth offenders who have been locked up for adult offenses to be incarcerated with adults. In the District, the policy is to send a youth accused of a serious offense to the D.C. Jail.
If a youth offender is found guilty of a serious crime, he or she can be sent as far away as Montana to serve their sentence.
Fenty’s findings, “Report on Youth in the Adult Jail” found that:
*Ninety-nine percent of all youth at the D.C. Jail are Black or Latino;
*Most of the youth are not charged with the FBI’s list of most serious offenses; and
*About half of the youth charges are dismissed or are found not guilty.
Mendelson said at present there are 26 juveniles in the D.C. jail. There were as many as 45 in 2007, he said, which he called unacceptable.
“That is still too many young people in a place that is really not designed for them,” he said.
Liz Ryan, president and chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said at the hearing that the real travesty was incarcerating youth who are found not guilty or their cases are thrown out.
The youth ends up traumatized and emotionally scarred because of the experience, she said. She said that “it is important for D.C. to follow the example of Chicago and Los Angeles and end the practice.”
The law which governs this area, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, states that youth who commit adult offenses can be incarcerated with grown-up criminals. The problem, Ryan said, is that oftentimes the youth is neglected by the criminal justice system and is not provided the support services that are needed.
William Rivera, a budding writer who served several months in the D.C. jail in 2005 as a youth, testified that the jail is indifferent to the needs of young people.
“When I was in jail, I was the only Latino youth there,” Rivera said. “While I was there, I was jumped and beaten. Nobody tried to help me.
“When I requested mental health services, I could not get it. I tried to get my GED, but I saw that the classes were a joke.
“Several times, I saw suicide attempts. I even talked one guy down from hanging himself.”
Jail guards ignored most fights, Rivera said. They seemed more concerned with their careers than the care of the inmates, he said.
Devon Brown, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, said that he believes, in theory, that youth should not be placed with adult offenders. However, there is the matter of what the law is, he said.
“It is important to note that everyone who is committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections is considered to be an adult in the eyes of the law, irrespective of their chronological age,” Brown said.
While Brown did not discuss Rivera’s experiences in the D.C. Jail, he did talk about programs that are offered to youth that are designed for rehabilitation.
“Juveniles are engaged in activities throughout the day designed to promote their physical, mental and social well-being,” he said. He mentioned programs such as a book clubs, art therapy, indoor and outdoor recreation, religious services, chess therapy and moral training.
Brown said that the Fenty administration is committed to seeing that youth offenders are treated fairly. He cited a town hall meeting in the spring held by the mayor at the jail for youth in which they talked about the problems that they had.
The bill proposed by Mendelson and Wells will not be considered until after the summer recess, which ends the week after Labor Day. The bill will have to go through public hearings and votes in both committees before it can be scheduled for the full council.
Fenty has said that he supports legislation ending youth incarceration at the D.C. Jail.