Sunday, May 16, 2010

Vacant Property Tax to Make Comeback?

The Washington Business Journal reported last week that Councilmember Muriel Bowser's Committee favors reestablishing the higher tax rate on vacant properties rather than Mayor Fenty's proposal to place a graduated registration fee on owners of vacant property ranging from $250 in the first year to $5,000 in the fifth year.  Currently, there is incentive placed on owners of vacant property to put their homes or businesses back into productive use other than a $20 registration fee.

The Committee's report [PDF, see pages 69-80] concludes "The Mayor’s proposal is simply not strong enough during the beginning years to encourage property owners to action. And, a fee, because it is not tied to a predictable, preexisting payment schedule and collection scheme, is more difficult to collect."

Instead, she proposes keeping what is now called the "Blighted Property Tax," which is $10 per $100 of assessed value, as Class 3, and reestablishing the vacant property tax at the $5 level as a new Class 4.  According to the committee report, Councilmember Bowser has the support of Councilmember Evans, who serves as Chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue and who takes credit for establishing the tax to address the concentration of vacant properties in Shaw.  In addition, the current vacant property registration fee of $20 would be increased to $250, "a level necessary to offset the administrative and inspection costs associated with monitoring and inspecting the Districts vacant properties."

The committee report proposes few, narrow grounds to escape the tax because "previous iterations of the vacant property tax law were rendered ineffective by property owners who dodged the tax by claiming illegitimate exemptions."  It would retain exemptions, limited to a one-year term, for properties actively listed for sale and rent, undergoing construction, facing economic hardship, pending predevelopment administrative review, as well as for properties subject to probate.  All would pay the $250 registration fee.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What Does $8 Million in City Funds Buy?

The Washington Post reports today that Peacoholics co-founder Ron Moten has established an anti-Vince Gray website,, aka "The Gray Files."  The website attempts to cast a cloud over the current Council Chairman and mayoral candidate's ethics and service. 

[UPDATE 5/17]: Dorothy Brizill reports in The Mail that Moten and Peacoholics cofounder Juahar Abraham "brought a large number of young people" to the Ward 8 Democrats Mayoral Election Straw Poll held Saturday. "Although most of these young people were not registered voters prior to the forum, the insisted on being allowed to register at the forum and to cast challenged ballots. Outside the church, the young people bragged about how they had been paid $100 to attend the forum."  In the initial tabulation, Gray received 59 votes to Fenty's 49.  After the challenged ballots were added, the result flipped to Fenty 69, Gray 61.

Peacoholics reportedly received $8 million from the DC government during the Fenty Administration, even more than the $4.5 million documented here.  The DC Council, chaired by Gray, finally cut off the faucet (spurred by an investigation related to Marion Barry's earmarks to organizations that he set up and to a girlfriend).  That ultimately led to a downsizing of Peacoholics.  Ah, dirty politics at its worst.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Judicial Confusion: Is JV Justice System Broken?

In an interview with Mark Segraves of WTOP [Audio / Article], Chief Judge Lee Satterfield of the D.C. Superior Court dismissed legislative efforts to form a commission to consider an overhaul of the District's juvenile justice system as political and unwarranted.

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?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Betts Suspects at Peacoholics Retreat 5 Days Before Murder

Peacoholics are the talk of the town again, linking up several recent issues on this blog -- the murder of Shaw SMS Principal Brian Betts, the urgent need for comprehensive reform of the District's juvenile justice system, and the millions in city dollars given to Peacoholics on a no-bid basis without any demonstrated results or accountability. 

The latest piece - the three at-large suspects in Betts' murder had attended a youth retreat in suburban Maryland sponsored by the Peacoholics just 5 days before the murder.  From the Washington Post:

All attended at least part of a retreat in Southern Maryland last month sponsored by Peaceoholics, a District-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youths.

Ronald Moten, the group's cofounder, said that all three arrived April 10 and participated in group discussions about violence.

Moten said that they seemed nice and that he was particularly impressed with Lancaster. "He voluntarily cleaned the whole compound," Moten said.

The three left that night. After the retreat, two of them attended a follow-up session. "We haven't seen them since," Moten said. Five days after the retreat, Betts was dead.
[UPDATE 1:20 p.m.: And now this from Loose Lips:
Police Union Chief Kristopher Baumann e-mailed LL to say that Moten's group is actually being paid by the District to find absconders and bring them back to DYRS. Moten testified on the subject at a hearing last year. Baumann writes:

"On June 10, 2009, Well’s committee held a hearing on DYRS. It was unbelievable. (I know watching old hearings can be a drag, but it is worth it.) Testifying in support of Schiraldi and DYRS were several non-profit groups (Peaceaholics, Concerned Men, etc) that testified that they were receiving “grants” from DYRS to go track down absconders and talk them in to returning to DYRS. Of course, they had no statistics (e.g., number of absconders returned, etc.) but that was what DYRS was paying them to do (they also apparently have office space at DYRS). These are essentially earmarks, but are being done by the Executive so they are called grants, with no oversight, no reports required. Worse they are giving money to groups to do the work the police should be doing (the word on the street is that DYRS did not want the MPD knowing how many absconders existed because it might be leaked and would not match the numbers they have been reporting)."]

According to the Washington CityPaper, Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten denies allegations that his nonprofit group harbored three suspects. 

Shaw residents posted their reactions on a neighborhood listserve:
"I don't know why [DYRS] can't lock some GPS anklets on them; not doing so is like granting them a leave of absence to go out and commit violence after they finish their training with DRYS coaches. Twenty-eight young former offenders [representing the 7% of the 400 youth under DYRS supervision that are typically absconders] can probably execute all the violent crime in the City for one week."
"Can we get your commitment that you will look into this "most serious" accusation? I know both of you have been supporters of the peaceaholics in the past but have begun to see some of the same issues that many in the community see with this group. I will admit that Mr. Moten was a most impressive salesman the last time I saw him but this is a serious problem!  I am all for trying to get kids into programs that get them off the streets and into jobs but this is one in a long list of problems with this group." (Email to Councilmembers Evans and Graham)
"We now have numerous deaths in our city, [a] SE shooting where 4 died, and up to 10 were injured, a recent robbery and shooting death of a beloved teacher/ principal, and yesterday a shooting on a metro bus. All by juveniles that had a long list of offenses and by standard in nearly every other city in America they would have been behind bars. Yet in our city, they are running lose on our streets, endangering the lives of countless citizens, youth, visitors and anyone that might by change cross their path.  When will we see a responsible elected body of councilmembers, and a mayor that steps up and does something? When will the excuses stop and action begin to replace the do-nothing approach of the current madness?"

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Let's Give Some More Kids a New Beginning

Look, I'm not a fan of taking every kid who commits a minor offense, locking him (or her) up, and throwing away the key, but violent offenders should not be on the street. If you wonder why the shootings, attacks involving juveniles, and yes, murders, are happening, look no further than an article in today's Washington Post.

Here's an excerpt:

Like [those the three 18-year-olds who murdered Shaw Middle School Principal Brian Betts], most of those under [the Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services (DYRS)] supervision are not in detention centers. [S]ome live in group homes, which are staffed but not locked. Others . . . live at home and are supervised in the community. Only about 60 of the youths committed to DYRS live at its New Beginnings, and 160 or so with severe behavioral issues live in out-of-state facilities better able to deal with specialized needs.
When a juvenile is placed on probation . . . he would report to Court Social Services. A spokeswoman for D.C. Superior Court said the number of juveniles under the agency's supervision was not available. Other information about the agency, such as how many of its juveniles have been arrested in the past year and how many have absconded from custody, was also said to be unavailable.

Court Social Services, like DYRS, has a unit that tries to find youths who have walked away from a group home or who have stopped showing up for drug tests or other appointments.

But with dozens of juvenile absconders at any given time, DYRS does not have the resources to mount an intense search for every one of them. The agency's absconder unit is made up of three people, so it relies on police officers, who have to worry not only about scores of juveniles but also thousands of adults wanted by the courts.
You heard it folks, the city government, which is in charge of determining whether a youth is locked up, released to a group home, or placed on probation (not the court) only has room to hold 60 youth offenders in custody.  Some are not held because there simply is no room.  Those who escape, walk out of an unlocked group facility, or stop showing up for hearings only have to worry about 3 individuals tracking them down, unless they happen to run into a police officer when committing their next crime.  The current state of affairs is unacceptable.  Period.

The Washington Post article is not a revelation.  The Chief Judge of the D.C. Superior Court pointed out these problems as among the most serious facing the city at a forum in March, months before Mr. Betts's murder.  At that forum, I also raised the apparent lack of reliable statistics on what happens after an arrest -- convictions and sentencing -- both on the part of the court and the city, which is again evident from this article.

The Mayor or DC Council should immediately establish a task force to comprehensively address juvenile justice in the District. 

This task force should include representatives of the executive branch including DYRS, the Council, the judiciary, and the community.  It should consider best practices of states, municipalities, and the federal government; develop legislative and administrative reforms; determine what additional resources are needed (i.e. increased holding capacity for youth offenders, additional officers to track down absconders); and consider what mechanisms should be implemented to track results.  The Task Force should hold a series of open hearings, circulate a preliminary report within six months, and present a final report recommending tangible actions that our officials should take within nine months.

DC's New Streetcars

They're impressive.  The car is similar to a large DC Circulator bus, only nicer.  You can tour one of the first to arrive at the CityCenterDC site (Old Convention Center parking lot) today and tomorrrow, but if you can't make it, here are some photos (click to enlarge).

From the Mayor's Press Release:
“In just two years – by this time in the spring of 2012 – streetcars will once again operate in the District of Columbia,” said Mayor Fenty. “But this isn’t a nostalgic trip down memory lane. The streetcar will be one of the pillars of a modern, multi-modal transportation network that will move the District forward, not backwards. We will be a leader in providing great transit choices for our residents.”

The District is planning a 37 mile, 8 line streetcar system, and construction on two lines has already started in Anacostia and in Northeast DC. The Mayor’s budget for FY2011 includes $63 million to complete work on the H Street/Benning Road line and to purchase additional vehicles. DDOT has also applied for $25 million in federal funding, through an Urban Circulator Grant, to extend the H Street/Benning Road line across the Anacostia River to the Benning Road Metro Station.