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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Should Juvenile Records Remain Sealed?

D.C. Police Chief Lobbies for Access To Youth Records

Local Coalition Criticizes Bill Introduced by Council Chairman

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, June 13, 2006; B02

Juvenile crime is rising in the District, and D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey spent yesterday afternoon trying to sell a D.C. Council committee on a controversial plan to help buck the trend.

Ramsey wants the case records of the most dangerous juvenile offenders -- information he says is often unavailable to investigators because of privacy laws -- released to his department.

"One out of every six juveniles arrested in D.C. today is charged with a violent offense, compared with one out of every 20 adults arrested," Ramsey said in testimony before the council's Judiciary Committee.

"Today, it is not uncommon for us to see packs of three or four or more juveniles, some of them armed, committing street robberies in our city."

After a weekend in which five homicides occurred, including the shooting of a 28-year-old man on his porch by four teenage assailants, Ramsey said his detectives need better tools to track underage suspects who drift in and out of the juvenile justice system below the official radar.

Ramsey spoke on behalf of a bill introduced by D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) that would give police access to criminal records of juveniles, home addresses of the juveniles and their family members and other sensitive information. Police would be able to find out, for example, about placements in group homes or juvenile detention facilities.

The records would be made available only for juveniles arrested three or more times or for juveniles accused of a single violent crime or unauthorized use of a vehicle, according to the bill.

The Justice 4 D.C. Youth! Coalition -- a group of parents, youths and community advocates -- criticized the bill as an unnecessary intrusion that could lead to police harassment. Other critics said they feared the confidential information would be leaked to the public, causing further harm.

Police can get the information they need on a case-by-case basis, said Joseph B. Tulman, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia law school.

The council hearing drew testimony from a group of youths who said the relationship between juveniles and police is already an uneasy one. The group said giving police access to their records could lead to harassment and prompt police to create lists of "good" and "bad" kids.
"Kids are supposed to get a second chance," said Larry Prescott, 16, a student at Caesar Chavez Public Charter School, who spoke along with other classmates .

Ramsey said police are talking about the youths who get fourth, fifth and sixth chances, because young offenders are usually on the street soon after being arrested, and they turn the juvenile justice system into a revolving door.

"The kids think it's a joke, and, quite frankly, it is," Ramsey said.

Police said the perfect case for the bill came up at the department's morning crime briefing yesterday. Officials discussed a juvenile who was arrested in January for stealing a car, in March for stealing another car, last month for robbery and last weekend for a more violent robbery, Executive Assistant D.C. Police Chief Michael J. Fitzgerald. Without access to records, "we wouldn't get to know where he is" once he leaves court, Fitzgerald said.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who heads the Judiciary Committee, said the earliest the bill could come up for a vote by the full council would be in the fall.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company