At a community forum in March, I asked the Chief Judge "from your perspective as judges on the bench . . . where do you see there being weaknesses in DC in prosecuting criminals?"
His answer: "The police officers do a tremendous job.... and the prosecutors as well... it would be good for the District to have its own crime lab, but right now the District has the best crime lab in the country and that is the FBI.... so its not that.... I think we have plenty of good laws...." In other words, he mentioned several areas that he felt worked well. But the one area he mentioned where he felt there were issues that needed to be addressed was the city's juvenile justice system.
When later asked about the lack of capacity to hold juveniles in custody by ANC 2F Commissioner Michael Bernardo, Judge Satterfield expanded. In addition to noting the extraordinary lack of capacity at the District's sole holding facility for convicted boys (and no holding facility for girls), Judge Satterfield emphasized the judiciary's inability, under current law, to sentence youth criminals (this is left entirely to the city)
The thing you need to know about the juvenile justice system that is a little bit different in our city than in others ... our role as a judge, and this is something the Council can work on if they choose to, are to, when I have a youth in front of me that has committed an offense, I can can either put them on probation or commit them. So if I have a youth who committed murder ... I can't say you are going to be incarcerated for this period of time. It's up to the city to decide whether you stay into jail or you go out of jail. So they can release that individual that very day if they want....You don't think the youth that come in front of us are aware that we have this type of system? So they can control whether or not they stay overcrowded at New Beginnings or not by just doing a release if necessary when they want to. We have no control over that aspect.That was even before the recent string of shootings and murders involving youth absconders.
Has Judge Satterfield done an about face? No, it doesn't appear so.
In the interview, Judge Satterfield maintains that judges need authority to sentence youths. He acknowledges that the number of complaints filed in his court against juveniles has increased a whopping 67% since 2003.
D.C. Superior Court District Family Court Judge William Jackson, who also spoke on the program, recognized that four percent of the 1,800 or so teens that are out on parole and under court supervision are "unaccounted for at any given time, and many do commit more crimes." That's about 72 offenders, some of which may have commited violent crimes, missing. The Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services oversees about 920 juvenile offenders. About 80 of those who are supposed to be under DYRS supervision are missing. In other words, there are about 150 youth offenders no where to be found by the court or city government. Apparently, this is a marked improvement from 2003 when as many as 1 in 4 JV offenders were unaccounted for.
Judge Satterfield notes a continuing concern, which he has repeatedly expressed to others in the city, that "there are not enough beds." The city's sole facility for housing youths convicted of crimes warranting imprisonment only can hold 60 individuals. When the facility is out of room -- what happens? Since judges do not have the authority to sentence juveniles to keep them in custody for any set period, the city can release them at any time. So the city has two options when the sign outside "New Beginnings" reads "No Rooms Available." Either a juvenile who has committed a violent or other very serious crime (or string of crimes) is given early release to make room for someone new or a youth who really should be held in custody is permitted to remain on the streets in parental custody or a group home.
To sum up -- record number of juvenile filings, no authority of the court to sentence offenders to keep them in custody, a lack of capacity to hold any more than 60 youth offenders leading to a revolving door in the city's juvenile holding facility, and about 150 teenagers at-large at any given time who are likely to commit more crimes.
Sounds like an area ripe for reform, if not yet to the level of a crisis.
Why is Chief Judge Satterfield resistant to forming an independent commission to investigate the District's juvenile justice system and recommend improvements?