District youths convicted of a violent crime will now have basic criminal information released to the public if Mayor Adrian Fenty signs into a law a bill unanimously passed by the council.
City agencies that handle minors have long been able to hide behind a veil of secrecy, but council members said Tuesday upon passing the bill that the agencies charged with punishing the city's juveniles will now be held accountable. The bill was introduced to address a series of high-profile crimes that were allegedly committed by wards of the city's juvenile justice agency who had violent pasts. Communities informed of violent offenders in their midst could better protect themselves while also holding city officials accountable, the bill's architects say. Critics, however, say the bill could make it hard for young, one-time offenders to get jobs or go to college while shedding little light on city agencies.
"This is not so much about the juveniles being held accountable as it is about the government being held accountable because there's less secrecy to hide behind," Councilman Phil Mendelson, D-at large, told The Washington Examiner.
The bill centers around releasing to the public basic criminal background information -- name, charges at arrest, charges at conviction and sentencing -- if a juvenile is convicted of one violent crime. It also allows information to be more easily shared between the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the D.C. police department, and other law enforcement and child care agencies. The legislation also allows city officials to release the names of violent offenders when they escape from jail so the public can be on the lookout.
On Tuesday, Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells introduced an amendment that would have required there be two violent crime convictions before a youth's criminal information is released. The amendment failed, but became the subject of a heated debate as council members sought to balance public safety against concerns for juveniles' futures.
"We're taking strong action today in rolling back confidentiality," Wells said. "It's a very strong statement to bring [the requirement] down to one conviction. If they commit one violent offense, forget about rehab ... it simply says, 'too late.' "
Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser countered, saying leniency isn't the answer. "The public needs to be able to hold us accountable at every level," Bowser said. "The shield of accountability is protecting not just the children, but it's really protecting a failed system."
But that system won't be held more accountable by the bill, said Matt Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia who focuses on child welfare issues.
"Now we'll have some information about a child that's not placed in any useful context and does not include any information that tells us how government agencies are performing," Fraidin said.