Juvenile Crime Bill Signed by Williams

Parents Facing New Accountability

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday signed legislation aimed at stemming a rising tide of juvenile crime in part by holding parents accountable for the actions of their children.

The bill, the “Omnibus Juvenile Justice Act of 2004,” would permit judges to order parents to show up in court with their child and to pay up to $10,000 in restitution to their child’s victim. Parents also would be subjected to an automatic neglect investigation if a child under 13 is judged delinquent three times.

If approved by Congress, the bill would make dozens of other changes throughout the city’s juvenile justice system, including closing the District’s troubled youth detention center within four years.

At a bill-signing ceremony attended by prosecutors, clergy and community activists, Williams (D) called it “a very important bill . . . designed to improve the safety of our neighborhoods and quality of life for our residents.”

“Legislation like this can’t solve all of our problems. It’s not a panacea. It’s not a magic wand,” Williams said. “But what this legislation can do is ensure there’s a structure in place to . . . create an environment of success in our juvenile justice programs.”

Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, ushered the bill through the council. Yesterday, she called it “an excellent step in building a safer community.”

The District’s juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes — including robbery, aggravated assault and rape — increased last year after falling steadily since the mid-1990s, according to a report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. Arrests for property and weapons offenses also were up, with auto theft arrests rising every year since 2000.

Meanwhile, public concern about youth violence has increased dramatically after a series of highly visible crimes, including the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old football player at Ballou Senior High School in February and a string of fatal accidents this summer caused by juveniles driving stolen vehicles.

In July, Williams announced an all-out effort to address the issue, particularly “the problem of juveniles stealing cars and using them as deadly weapons.”

The D.C. Council rejected the mayor’s original proposal, a plan to make it much easier for prosecutors to charge 15-year-old offenders as adults. But the council adopted a provision that would require judges to determine within 90 days whether a 15-year-old may be transferred to adult court, a process that now takes as long as two years.

The bill, which received final council approval Nov. 9, also calls for the Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel to be replaced with smaller facilities that meet national standards. The detention center has been plagued by poor conditions and chronic mismanagement and has become emblematic of problems in the system. Closing it would mark a significant step toward the broader reforms envisioned when Williams first introduced the legislation last fall.

The bill would also:

• Grant prosecutors, victims and other parties greater access to confidential information about juvenile suspects.

• Permit victims and eyewitnesses to attend certain juvenile court proceedings.

• Require the Youth Services Administration to conduct periodic evaluations of children in its custody to determine the effectiveness of its programs.

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Copyright 2004 The Washington Post