Slight Rise Cited After Years of Decline
The District’s juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes — including robbery, aggravated assault and rape — has risen slightly this year after a steady decline since the mid-1990s, according to a report to be released this month, just as the D.C. Council prepares to take up several bills to make it easier to try juveniles as adults.
The report, which questions the efficacy of such measures, notes a general increase in juvenile arrests, including arrests for property and weapons offenses. Auto theft arrests have increased every year since 2000. However, juvenile arrests on murder and drug offenses have not increased since last year.
Despite the increase over the past year, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crime has dropped by more than half since 1995, according to the report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.
“The magnitude of the increase is small compared to the steep decline that came before,” wrote the report’s author, Jeffrey A. Butts, a sociologist who directs the institute’s Program on Youth Justice. “The rate of violent crime among young people is half of what it was in the 1990s.”
In an interview, Butts said that the increase in juvenile arrests was to be expected after years of decline. “It looks like we’ve hit the bottom and things are starting to go up again, but it’s not time to panic,” he said.
Nonetheless, the report acknowledges that public concern about youth violence in the city has increased because of highly visible crimes, including a gang-related shooting that injured a Metrobus driver and the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old student as he was leaving a high school dance. Both shootings occurred in October.
The report is scheduled to be released shortly before the council’s Judiciary Committee holds hearings in January on five juvenile justice bills. The most comprehensive bill, proposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), would relax the legal hurdles the city must overcome in transferring 15-year-old defendants to adult court in cases of serious violent crime.
It also would make it easier for officials to share information about juveniles with crime victims and would allow judges to hold parents in criminal contempt for failing to participate in their children’s rehabilitation plans.
Another bill, introduced by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), has similar provisions but would also allow children with three juvenile convictions to be transferred to adult court without additional justification.
A third bill, introduced by council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), would let the city suspend the driver’s license of a delinquent’s parent and share information about the child’s cases with the D.C. Housing Authority, which could affect the family’s eligibility for public housing.
The report from the Urban Institute argues that proposals to make it easier to try children as adults represent “relatively meager changes in the legal process” and would affect only a small number of youths, perhaps a dozen each year.
“While such policies may be popular with the public, they will have very little effect on overall public safety and may even increase the odds that youth will commit serious crime in the future,” Butts wrote. He cited a study last year that found that children tried in adult court in Florida had higher recidivism than those who received services in the juvenile system.
Butts said that juveniles in the high-profile cases “are representative of a small, consistent, tragic problem,” but that the situation is still much better than it was eight years ago.
“It’s important for us not to do what many states did in the 1990s, which was to turn the juvenile justice system into a scapegoat for our problem with youth violence,” Butts said. “We’re not going to solve the violence problem by changing the juvenile justice system alone.”
To compare arrests this year with those in previous years, the report used statistics from January through October, weighting the figures to represent a full year.