Hearing a commotion one evening in 2021, Kevin McGilly opened the back door of his Bloomingdale home to discover police arresting his 15-year-old foster son, who this article will refer to as “Shawn.”
The teen and several accomplices had pulled an Uber driver out of his vehicle and drove away in it. A police pursuit followed, the teens jumped out after driving into a dead-end street, and fled on foot. Shawn “was trying to scramble back into the house,” McGilly recalled. Police arrested the teenager and carted him away.
Overnight, McGilly researched restorative justice. He was torn. On one hand, he was upset over his foster child’s arrest. On the other, Shawn might finally suffer the consequences of his illegal actions. It could be a new beginning, McGilly hoped.
The next morning, McGilly got a phone call from the public defender. The teen was being released; all charges dropped, the lawyer said.
Shawn told his friends how nothing happened after his arrest, McGilly said. Worse, he introduced other kids living in the house, one as young as 13, to the world of carjacking, which his contemporaries refer to as “free cars.”
“Kids take other kids for joy rides in stolen vehicles, which they call ‘free cars,’ then graduate to teaching them how to carjack. When they got caught, nothing serious happened. So it exploded,” McGilly said. “We’ve had twice as many carjackings in 2023 as last year, and it’s just because more and more kids were being introduced to it.”
“We weren’t doing anything about it,” McGilly said.
Those working with DC juvenile say the goal of system is to address the factors motivating youth criminality and preserve public safety, rather than deterring the behavior itself.
“But you can’t fix root root causes while a fire is burning out of control,” McGilly said. “First you have to put out the fire.”
Moreover, the odds of getting caught committing a carjacking are one in six. Then, even if the perpetrator is arrested, prosecutors face significant evidentiary challenges making their case. And, even if convicted, the juvenile justice system’s sanctions are lenient, designed to reform rather than deter.
Hard to Catch
In 2023, a plague of carjackings exploded across the District: 873 were reported as of Nov. 15, an average of nearly three a day. However, police have made only 173 arrests. At a Nov. 13 press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) declared juvenile crime a public emergency.
Kids under 18 have consistently accounted for roughly two-thirds of those arrested for carjacking. So it’s not surprising that the public attributes the crime to youth. However, the sample size only accounts for about 17 percent of cases, hardly sufficient to definitively term carjacking a juvenile plague. It could be that given their poor driving skills and general judgement, kids are more likely to get caught.
Apprehension does not always result in criminal charges. To be charged with carjacking requires prosecutors prove that the accused made a physical threat and as a result took a car. Linking individuals to specific incidents is difficult when they dress alike–black hoodies and skinny jeans–and are masked.
Even when multiple youth are found in a carjacked vehicle, police sometimes only find sufficient probable cause to arrest at most one of them for that offense. Often, the remainder will be charged with the lesser crime of “Unauthorized Use of A Vehicle (UAW)” say attorneys from the DC Office of the Attorney General (DC OAG), responsible for juvenile prosecution.
The inability to link crime to perpetrator is exacerbated by the practice of passing stolen cars from one juvenile to another as “free cars.”
The low probability of apprehension is not lost on carjackers. Deterrence “is much more about the likelihood of getting caught, which implicates policing, rather than punishment or response in the juvenile legal system as its set up,” said Edward Ferrer, policy director of the Georgetown University’s Juvenile Justice Initiative, citing national research.
The District cannot arrest its way out of the crisis, said Mayor Bowser (D) at her Nov. 13 press conference. However, she added, youth do need stronger boundaries and increased interventions.
Truancy is a primary warning indicator of incipient juvenile criminal behavior, national research says. So one of the strongest interventions we can make to keep down juvenile criminal behavior is to keep kids in school. However the system to do so is woefully lacking here in the District.
Support System Down
Kids who have an average number of 13.6 unexcused absences were more than three times as likely to become justice involved, according to a study by The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CCJC). Under DC Law, schools must refer chronically truant youth to Child Support Services (CSS), an arm of the DC OAG. CSS is supposed to evaluate each case, submitting an action plan. After judicial approval, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) is responsible for its implementation.
Unfortunately, there is a problem.
In the absence of a direct court order, CSS remains unable to directly access student records to verify attendance due to juvenile privacy protections, the DC OAG recently testified to the DC Council. Inability to access this basic metric puts the agency at tremendous disadvantage when supervising its young charges. Yet, this is only one factor standing in the way of supporting truant youth.
The public thinks about the juvenile criminal justice as a “system.” We think about it as judges, prosecutors and the prisons,” said Ferrer. However, in fact, multiple agencies and bureaucratic processes play huge roles in the adjudication and treatment of youth offenders.
One percent of justice-involved youth were homeless, a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) report found. 64 percent were enrolled in Medicaid. 50 percent had prior contact with child welfare agencies before arrest, according to the study. These unfulfilled needs are often part of the reason kids end up involved with the justice system in the first place, Ferrer said.
As a kid journeys through the legal bureaucracy, CSS and later DYRS connects them with necessary city services at other agencies. These could be behavioral health professionals, housing, educational or family supports. Sometimes, judges predicate release from DYRS commitment on successfully reaching goals with these agencies.
“So, it’s the whole ecosystem around young people and their families that is supposed to exist to support them,” Ferrer points out.
A judge might require a juvenile offender to attend school, counseling or abide by a curfew. However, often the agencies fail to deliver. For example, 33.5 percent of justice-involved youth are subject to Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). If a school is too under-resourced to implement them, however, a kid might end up roaming the halls. If DYRS discovers the infraction, it may punish the child by imposing more restrictive custody, when it is the system that has failed the child.
Similarly, the Access Help Line is provided by the District to connect children and adults to services. However, intake normally takes three to four weeks, Ferrer said. Provisioning services usually requires another six.
If the goal of the juvenile system is to prevent recidivism, Ferrer said, perhaps the focus should be on the places where the system fails kids as much as changing juvenile behavior. “This is the very definition of systemic failure,” he added.
So, what happens after the youth responsible for a carjacking who is placed in DYRS custody?
If it is the yuth’s first interaction with the justice system and the offense was unarmed, DYRS may release them to their families or other in-community guardians, police say. However, most carjackers remain under DYRS supervision; many are committed to its custody.
More kids should be held securely, the administration believes. “If they’ve been arrested for robbery after robbery, they shouldn’t be in a group home,” Bowser said. “They should be in a secure detained space.”
But one problem is DYRS’s custodial facilities remain overcrowded with beds in short supply.
In December of 2022, a DC Superior Court Judge ordered DYRS to provide more shelter space for girls. This has not yet happened. On the morning of Nov. 13, 2023 according to WUSA, the same court threatened DYRS with contempt for not adding more beds. Space was not an issue until recently, DYRS Director Sam Abed assured reporters at a press conference later day. But judge’s orders tell a different story.
In October, a surge in the arrests of adolescent girls generated a waitlist for pretrial accommodation. That month, citing DYRS’s lack of secure housing, DC Superior Court released a 15-year-old girl charged with robbery to the custody of her parents with GPS monitoring. Having allowed the batteries to die on her ankle monitor, the young teen was later involved in an accident involving two carjacked vehicles which killed a 16-year-old.
The mayor’s Nov. 13 emergency order specifies additional beds for youth at secure facilities and shelter homes. DYRS is adding a 10-bed unit at its Youth Services Center (YSC). It also provides financial incentives for private providers to open additional placements.
The mayor’s approach may be intuitively obvious, but confining kids to DYRS’s secure facilities is not a recipe for success, according the agency’s own statistics.
DYRS is currently under scrutiny for conditions at both the YSC facility, where youth are held pre-trial, and at New Beginnings, which houses kids who are sentenced to secure confinement. Both are currently short-staffed and frequently over-capacity.
That’s resulted in conditions that are problematic. This summer, parents of detained youth told DCist that their children were being confined to their cells for 23 hours of the day. DC law says that kids should only be confined to cells for safety reasons and not for a period longer than six hours.
Frustrated youth do act out violently. In October 2023, two detainees at YSC attacked a guard, stealing her ID badge and using it to release other detainees. Five security guards were injured in the incident and about 20 youth were involved in what City Administrator Donahue called a “melee.”
Kids committed to secure facilities are more likely to reoffend compared to those diverted out of the system, according to DC OAG statistics. Diversion is a pathway out of the justice system. DC’s Department of Human Services runs the OAG diversion program, alternatives to the court experience (ACE). DHS evaluates the youth and develops a program of services to help address their needs and hopefully avoid recidivism.
The DC OAG charged 981 “matters” in FY 2022 and early 2023. Of those, 226 cases were diverted. 17.9 percent of these youth committed another crime within six months compared to 33.6 percent of those prosecuted. Historical data indicates that nearly 75 percent of participants who complete the ACE program avoid re-arrest and 62 percent improve school attendance.
Not all of the youth who are prosecuted are confined. But this data does indicate
that either prosecution and its consequences are a less effective strategy than diversion or those selected for prosecution are inherently more dangerous.
So, while a frustrated public calls for confinement of young carjackers, it is not clear such a policy would increase public safety.
Nor does confinement serve as a much a deterrent.
Kids do not consider consequences before committing crimes, said Ferrer. So, a juvenile justice system built around using confinement as a deterrent “is not going to be effective.”
A recent viral Instagram video posted by @dc.artists.tv and evidently filmed by an older male is a case in point. The video shows two adolescent boys roughly 12 years of age chatting while they case cars to steal.
“He’s saying rather commit murder than commit armed robbery… You are the dumbest f–k. Armed robbery is what we’re doing!”
“No, it’s not!” responds the other. “It’s armed robbery and armed carjacking, dummy.”
“It’s the same thing. That’s lower than murder!”
“It’s both of them combined…that’s higher than murder.”
“You’re taking a human life!” says the first child [walking away in exasperation].
[An older voice, filming, says that murder can involve up to eight charges.]
“Well, whoever’s the driver, if I know that they know how to get away from 12 [police], then I’m bending [shooting] with them. If I figure that the [expletive] not gonna get away, then I’m not hopping in with them. No doubt. He calling me dumb!”
“You did say you’d rather take a human’s life and get life than rob someone and get 10 to 12 years.”
Clearly, the two adolescents were aware that there are steep consequences to getting caught carjacking, if not the specifics. At least one youth appears to believe the solution is to leave no witnesses regardless of the risk of additional imprisonment —because that reduces the probability of being identified.
If the threat of imprisonment is not a viable solution, what can the District do to deter carjacking?
Changes Needed to Ensure Public Safety
Legislative changes are needed to address crime overall in the District, said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Lindsay Appiah, who previously served as DYRS general counsel for nine years.
“Having worked with young people, maybe that’s all the more true for [them],” said Appiah. “Because young people need clear boundaries and clear messages about what is right and wrong and what’s acceptable.”
Foster dad McGilly agrees. Getting caught was “no big deal,” his foster son told his friends.
“If we say that because kids aren’t great at thinking about consequences and deterrents, we’re just going to pretend that is no longer a consideration. What happens is 900 carjackings,” McGlly said. “I would like something more than nothing; I think that’s a starting point.”
A year after the carjacking, police charged Shawn with assault in a domestic dispute. He spent about two months in a group home. While McGilly appreciated the services Shawn had access to, the environment was not perfect. Shawn spent his “time” with other troubled kids, receiving a different kind of education. “So, it kind of goes both ways,” McGilly said.
Today, Shawn is living in another state, away from the people and places that got him in trouble. McGilly is still in touch. The teen is on track to graduate from high school and hopes to join the armed forces when he turns 18. He’s an impressively bright kid, McGilly said. If he’d grown up in Cleveland Heights, Ivy League schools would be after him.
While that’s not his next destination, McGilly said Shawn is headed in the right direction.
“That’s the thing, he’s (Shawn) trying to get on track. This is a potentially good news story at the end of the day,” McGilly said.