Pubdate: Tue, 27 Apr 1999
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A08
Copyright: 1999 The Washington Post Company
Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post Staff Writer


Democrats Look for Ways to Help Youths Beat Drugs, Violence

Senate Democrats toured a D.C. youth detention center yesterday, looking for
ideas on how to curb juvenile crime and gearing up for debate on a proposed
$6 billion federal crackdown on youth offenders in the wake of last week's
Colorado high school shootings.

The deaths of 15 people in the Littleton, Colo., shootings were on the minds
of the lawmakers and officials at the 188-bed Oak Hill Youth Detention
Center in Laurel. Teenagers incarcerated there and youth advocates suggested
a number of anti-violence measures, from curbing drugs and handguns to
paying for counselors to  identify and assist troubled youngsters with
neglectful parents.

"Things like events in Colorado make it very difficult to figure out what it
is we can do to stop it and prevent this from ever happening again," Robert
Wilkins, a juvenile expert with the D.C. public defender's office, told a
delegation that included Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.) and Paul D. Wellstone
(Minn.) and aides to Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes.

"We need somehow to get a much better flow of information about what works,"
said Dorgan, co-chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, which had
planned yesterday's Oak Hill tour before the Colorado tragedy. "We need to
connect with some reality about juvenile justice." 

The Clinton administration today will announce several new gun control
measures, including tougher penalties on adults who help put guns in the
hands of children and a lifetime ban on gun ownership by violent youth
offenders. The ban is already part of legislation in the Senate to authorize
up to $6 billion over six years to combat juvenile crime.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a version of the GOP-backed bill last
year. It stalled, however, amid controversy over its proposals to prosecute
and jail more offenders as adults; Democrats' concerns that minority youths
would be disproportionately affected; and Republican anxiety that gun
control riders might be attached.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the judiciary panel and the bill's
sponsor, plans to hold new hearings on juvenile crime, a committee staffer
said. A competing Democratic bill, sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.),
is still before the panel.

Yesterday, D.C. Youth Services Agency officials urged senators not to
abandon the juvenile justice system's  commitment to rehabilitation.
National studies show 50 percent to 70 percent of incarcerated youth
offenders  commit crimes later in life, but that figure, analysts say,
plummets if offenders receive counseling and other  help.

"There's no one who can say that locking more kids up makes any positive
impact on the fiscal end or difference in crime rates," said John Savage, an
analyst with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, who participated
in a round-table discussion about juvenile crime after the Oak Hill tour.

D.C. Superior Court Judge George W. Mitchell, who was also invited to speak
as presiding judge for the District's family court, said parents need help
in identifying whether their child is potentially dangerous
or simply misdirected.

"We need diagnostic centers," said Mitchell. "The child in Colorado has the
same [problems] in his life as does that black kid in the black community. .
. . There are so many derelict parents."

Youths in a group drug-rehabilitation program said what they most need to
improve their lives is drug treatment, an end to drugs in their
neighborhoods, and a stronger home environment.

A 16-year-old unmarried mother, who has a 2-year-old daughter and was sent
to Oak Hill for selling drugs, said she did not want to repeat the "drinking
and smoking" behavior of her own unmarried, abusive mother.

"It's the environment we live in," said another youth, 18, who started
selling drugs at age 12 and has been shot three times during gang fights. He
worries that his little brother sees him as a role model. He also worries
that he won't have the strength to beat his addiction.

"If you get shot, you can get out of the game if you don't want to deal with
that pain," he said. "But with drugs, it's personal."

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