Ju­ve­nile jus­tice con­cerns linger

Agency ad­vised by coun­cil com­mit­tee

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

AN­NAPO­LIS | A bill un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in the Se­nate would give ex­tra le­gal pro­tec­tion to res­i­dents who speak out against cor­po­ra­tions and public fig­ures. But not ev­ery­one is happy about it. The Se­nate is ex­pected to vote this week on a mea­sure that would crack down on Strate­gic Law­suits Against Public Par­tic­i­pa­tion (SLAPP) suits — typ­i­cally friv­o­lous defama­tion law­suits filed by wealthy plain­tiffs to in­tim­i­date a vo­cal, less wealthy critic into set­tling out of court and keep­ing quiet.

The bill could force plain­tiffs ac­cused of fil­ing friv­o­lous SLAPP suits to prove their cases as le­git­i­mate be­fore a trial can move for­ward.

Sup­port­ers say it will toughen the state’s cur­rent laws and save in­no­cent de­fen­dants thou­sands in le­gal costs, but op­po­nents say it would lift the bur­den of proof too high for public fig­ures and leave many of them pow­er­less to de­fend them­selves against real defama­tion.

“You are go­ing to have open sea­son on any­body who holds them­selves out there in the public,” said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Bal­ti­more County Demo­crat. “It is a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from what SLAPP suits are sup­posed to be about.”

The Dis­trict’s ju­ve­nile jus­tice agency needs to pro­vide more sub­stance abuse treat­ment op­tions for its trou­bled wards and dras­ti­cally im­prove its com­mu­ni­ca­tion with par­ents of young peo­ple housed as far as Utah, a D.C. Coun­cil com­mit­tee said.

Mem­bers of the coun­cil’s Com­mit­tee on Hu­man Ser­vices ac­knowl­edged dur­ing an over­sight hear­ing Fri­day that the Depart­ment of Youth and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Ser­vices has made strides in re­spond­ing to some se­cu­rity con­cerns at the agency’s youth de­ten­tion cen­ter and has taken a tougher stance against gang graf­fiti, or “tag­ging,” at its fa­cil­i­ties.

But the agency’s progress is coun­ter­bal­anced by lin­ger­ing con­cerns about the shut­tling of youths among fa­cil­i­ties across the coun­try — sev­er­ing ties with their par­ents — and con­tin­u­ing trou­bles track­ing youths who ab­scond from their as­signed lo­ca­tions.

Coun­cil mem­ber Mar­ion Barry, Ward 8 Demo­crat, re­it­er­ated his con­cern that DYRS Di­rec­tor Neil A. Stan­ley has a “won­der­ful for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ences,” but not enough ex­pe­ri­ence in ju­ve­nile jus­tice.

“It pains me, it just hurts my heart — yours, too — to see these peo­ple not taken care of the way they should be taken care of,” Mr. Barry told com­mit­tee Chair­man Jim Gra­ham on the dais. “I think Mr. Stan­ley needs to set a stan­dard — that if you want to work at DYRS, first of all, you’re not there for a job, you’re there to do a job.”

Mr. Gra­ham, Ward 1 Demo­crat, in­quired about 84 job va­can­cies at the agency, $1.6 mil­lion in un­spent funds and the high num­ber of youths who flee from DYRS cus­tody.

DYRS of­fi­cials said hir­ing and pro­cure­ment freezes im­ple­mented by Mayor Vin­cent C. Gray last year took a toll on the agency, and while elec­tronic mon­i­tor­ing has helped track wards, even more needs to be done.

“I think DYRS must know where ev­ery sin­gle young per­son is at all times,” Mr. Stan­ley told the com­mit­tee.

Mr. Gra­ham noted that ju­ve­nile jus­tice is a “split sys­tem” in the Dis­trict, with about 1,800 youths on pro­ba­tion through the D.C. Su­pe­rior Court and more than 900 com­mit­ted to DYRS, which has a bud­get of $107 mil­lion for the cur­rent fis­cal year.

The coun­cil mem­ber also pressed two pri­mary con­trac­tors, or “lead en­ti­ties,” that dis­trib­ute funds to the com­mu­nity part­ners who de­liver ser­vices to city youth.

The bill was spon­sored by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Mont­gomery Demo­crat who says it is de­signed pri­mar­ily to pro­tect res­i­dents who take stances on public is­sues, such as neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tions that crit­i­cize de­vel­op­ers over planned projects that could af­fect their com­mu­ni­ties.

It would al­low de­fen­dants who sus­pect they are a vic­tim of a SLAPP suit to sub­mit ba­sic rea­sons for their sus­pi­cions.

If ac­cepted by a judge, the plain­tiff would then have to make their own case for why the suit is le­git­i­mate and should con­tinue.

Mr. Frosh said Mary­land’s cur­rent ANTI-SLAPP law, which al­lows de­fen­dants to mo­tion for dis­missal be­fore or dur­ing a trial, still leaves them open to costly and time-con­sum­ing court pro­ceed­ings and is one of the weak­est such laws in the na­tion.

He ar­gued the cur­rent law re­quires de­fen­dants to prac­ti­cally read plain­tiffs’ thoughts to prove they are act­ing in bad faith, and that his bill would force plain­tiffs to now lay out a vi­able case at the start.

“You’ve got to be able to show go­ing in the door that the guy was ly­ing,” he said. “It just pro­vides a short­cut when it’s a SLAPP suit.”

The Se­nate de­bated the is­sue last week and could vote on the bill as early as Tues­day.

While Mr. Frosh con­tends it will pro­tect ev­ery­day res­i­dents who are out­spo­ken and opin­ion­ated on gov­ern­ment is­sues, some of his op­po­nents say the bill has an­other pur­pose — to pro­tect the me­dia from po­ten­tial li­bel suits.

Mr. Zirkin ar­gued the bill is be­ing pushed by news or­ga­ni­za­tions and is de­signed to pre­vent in­ci­dents sim­i­lar to the case last year in the Dis­trict in which Washington Red­skins owner Daniel Sny­der sued the Washington City Pa­per over an ar­ti­cle he said was defam­a­tory.

The law­suit dragged on for sev­eral months un­til Mr. Sny­der dropped it be­fore a court could rule on the news­pa­per’s re­quest for dis­missal un­der the Dis­trict’s ANTI-SLAPP law.

Sen. Al­lan H. Kit­tle­man, Howard Re­pub­li­can, said Mary­land’s cur­rent law is just fine and that Mr. Frosh’s bill is un­rea­son­ably hard on well-mean­ing plain­tiffs.

“It would put an un­due bur­den upon some­body who is try­ing to de­fend them­selves,” he said. “I think that ev­ery­body de­serves their day in court, and we shouldn’t be harm­ing those who are try­ing to de­fend them­selves.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY AN­DREW HARNIK/THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Wounded sol­diers and vet­er­ans com­pete in a hand-bike race Sun­day in Fort Meade, Md., and Spc. Bryn­den Keller, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, read­ies for a sprint. The ath­letes have been train­ing in hopes of go­ing to the Army War­rior Games, to be held April 30 to May 5 in Colorado Springs. Other events fea­tured in the games will in­clude archery, wheel­chair bas­ket­ball, swim­ming and sit­ting vol­ley­ball.

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Depart­ment of Youth and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Ser­vices Di­rec­tor Neil A. Stan­ley said he wants his agency to “know where ev­ery sin­gle young per­son is at all times.” The agency has had trou­ble track­ing youths who ab­scond from their as­signed lo­ca­tions.

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