Photo by PoPville flickr user AWard Tour
Youth wrongfully charged in Southeast shootings
rash judgment about 14 year-old and juvenile justice agency led
to escalated tensions rather than responsible dialogue
In light of new information clearing the wrongfully accused 14 year-old of any connection to the tragic shooting in Southeast D.C., experts and advocates condemn hasty judgments which have misdirected attention to the youth and escalated tensions about the juvenile justice system in the city. The three other individuals allegedly involved in the shootings are all adults. The advocates also condemn the public disclosure of the young person’s name, which brazenly ignores the District’s confidentiality laws which prohibit the identification of court-involved youth.
“While this tragedy rightly required swift response, ignoring the presumption of innocence and the myopic focus on a youth rather than the multiple shooters was unacceptable and irresponsible,” says Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY), an advocacy group focusing on juvenile justice reform in the city. “Rather than a reasoned exploration of public safety, confidentiality laws were ignored when the young person was publicly accused of a crime he didn’t commit. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Following the March 30 shootings in Southeast Washington, a 14 year-old was arrested and charged with being the driver of the car involved in the drive-by shooting. But on April 22, the Office of the Attorney General dismissed all 41 charges against the youth after learning that he had no involvement in the planning or execution of the incident. Like many other states, the District of Columbia prohibits the publication of the names of youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Media outlets, policy makers and community members disclosed the name of the 14 year-old youth, who has been cleared of all connection to the shootings.
“The inappropriate focus on the youth has vilified the juvenile justice system and distracted us from important issues relevant to the shooting, like the availability of automatic assault weapons and more coordinated approaches to public safety,” says Okonkwo. “We’ve been talking about derailing juvenile justice reforms that have helped reduce juvenile crime and improved conditions of confinement, rather than talking about ways to prevent violence in our most vulnerable communities. It’s time to get back on track.”
Recent hearings focused on the role of the Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services (DYRS), although all of the individuals now believed to be associated with the violence are adults. DYRS is nationally recognized for its juvenile justice reforms, which have contributed to more serious youth offenders being confined for longer periods of time and a drop in juvenile re-offense rates.
DCLY supports continued juvenile justice reforms based on experience, research, data-analysis, and a review of best-practices. To further strengthen juvenile justice and crime prevention efforts in the city, DCLY commended Councilmembers Jim Graham, Tommy Wells, and Phil Mendelson for calling for the creation of a Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform and urged them to charge ahead with the Commission’s creation despite the fact that no youth was known to be involved in the planning or execution of the March 30 shootings.
“While DYRS has made incredible strides in improving safety for our youth and community, more can be done,” said Eduardo Ferrer, DCLY’s Chief Operating Officer. “The Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform proposed by Councilmembers Graham, Wells, and Mendelson, if implemented correctly, will be a great vehicle for exploring how we can improve current reforms and implement others. This idea should not be scrapped just because those currently charged with the March 30 shooting were all adults. The time to act is now.”
DC Lawyers for Youth is a local non-profit dedicated to improving the D.C. juvenile justice system through advocacy, direct service, and the dissemination of information. By bridging the worlds of ideas and action, DCLY empowers and engages the District’s legal community and youth to effect positive change.