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Posted at 5:42 PM ET, 06/12/2009

A Too-Blunt Instrument for Fighting D.C. Crime

By Gina Acosta

By Benjamin Todd Jealous and Lorraine C. Miller

When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council member Jack Evans look across the D.C. neighborhoods where thousands of young residents are struggling to find jobs, get good educations, and grow safely into productive adulthood, you have to wonder exactly what they see.

Is it a bleak, unforgiving landscape ruled by gangs of soulless youths who deserve to be locked up forever? Or do they see a landscape where residents’ truest common link is their shared desire to improve their lives and those of their family members?

We certainly hope that our elected officials see the diamonds in even the roughest of neighborhoods — and recognize the crucial need to account for the many nuances of behavior, circumstantial quirks and sheer dumb luck that are part of most young people’s experiences.

The emergency crime bill that is scheduled for a D.C. Council vote on Tuesday is unaccountably tone-deaf to the complex realities of young people’s experiences in these times. The measures have the potential to unfairly tar a wide swath of the District’s youth with guilt-by-association brushes that would hinder their ability to recover from episodes in which poor judgment in the moment — not murderous intent or hard-core drug dealing — may have led them to criminal activity.

The bill’s most notable features include a “gang injunction” that carries an overly broad definition of what constitutes a gang affiliation; a “gun offender registry” that has the potential to unfairly limit offenders’ prospects for turning their lives around; and the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences that shift the sentencing authority from judges to adversarial prosecutors. The gang injunction finding can remain in the defendant’s permanent record; this shortsighted provision virtually ensures that people will continue to be subjected to its negative taint.

Worse yet, because these are civil injunctions, young people are robbed of their right to be provided with legal representation. The mayor’s stated rationale for the urgency is simply the impending arrival of summer, when young people are out of school. Jobs would be a better solution.

In fact, gun crimes in the District declined last year, with a 12 percent reduction in gun-related robberies and a 14 percent decrease in gun-related assaults. The bill is likely to strengthen actual gangs. After being slapped with the label by this proposed injunction and told that it will stick indefinitely, young people who had previously only flirted with gang involvement may give up on finding the will to avoid the lure of gangs.

For a youngster desperately trying to maintain the courage to buck negative peer pressure, this legislation does not give them a lifeline, it gives them a prison cell where faint candles of inner strength have no oxygen.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and chief executive of the NAACP, and Lorraine C. Miller is the president of the D.C. branch of the NAACP. Both are residents of the District.

By Gina Acosta  | June 12, 2009; 5:42 PM ET
Categories:  crime  
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Whether the authors like it or not, many innocent people in DC of all races and ethnicities are subjected to victimization by young men, juvenile and man-child. They may be arrested, but are soon out to prey on people again. The long term health of the city requires these predators to be locked up, they possess the intelligence to make choices just as the rest of us do, and they choose violence simply because its fun and easy for them. I am sorry they have such a tough life, but they are much better off than billions of other people on earth, and their choice of violence should earn them nothing but prison, if not death.

Or, loosen the gun laws here and let citizens protect themselves if you will not let police protect them.

Posted by: mendelsonmustgo | June 15, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Thank you SO MUCH for this thoughtful piece. I am so disturbed by the blind "get tough" rhetoric going around that is totally divorced from reality. These injunctions and other policies actually end up preventing people from participating in community programs that reduce gang membership and help young people improve their lives. These policies are a total waste of resources and energy. You are totally right that we need more investment in jobs, schools and other community programs. We need to listen to young people and help them get what they need instead of locking them up forever.

Posted by: tnewman2 | June 16, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

More black youths will die as a direct result of your position, which has prevailed within the racially hamstrung Council. Aren't you proud?

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | June 22, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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