When 22-year-old Donald R. Martin appeared at D.C. Superior Court for sentencing two years ago, after pleading guilty to second degree murder in a fatal shooting, he could have been sentenced to life in prison.
Instead, Judge Fred B. Ugast invoked the Federal Youth Corrections Act, a 34-year-old law that allowed special treatment of offenders up to age 22 and imposed a maximum 13-year sentence. Martin immediately became eligible for parole, though he remains incarcerated and he is provided with learning and job-skill training.
Some prosecutors might have called the sentence too lenient. But, until recently, hundreds like it were handed out in the city's courts each year for a variety of offenses, in the belief that young offenders should be handled differently from older and hardened criminals and given a chance to train for a job and clear their records.
That concept was questioned recently when Congress, after years of debate, approved a package of new federal laws that repealed the youth act, which had applied only to District and federal courts across the country.
City officials, who were aware of the proposed laws but were caught off guard by their sudden approval, now are beginning to consider whether a strictly local statute should be enacted to replace the old federal law and, if so, what provisions should be made for young offenders.
The prospect of new local legislation promises a lively debate between defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges and city officials, all of whom have differing views on the direction such a law should take.
If passed by the city, such a measure also could provide the first significant test of the District's ability to legislate criminal code changes under a new home rule law that makes it more difficult to veto changes in Congress.
Yesterday, the City Council began considering an emergency measure that would temporarily reimpose the youth act's provisions until the issue could be studied. But the measure's sponsor, Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), withdrew the bill after a number of council members said they favored an amendment that would exempt violent criminals from the act.
"The youth act has been utilized by judges of this court in a substantial number of cases, particularly misdemeanors," said Judge Ugast, chief of the court's criminal division. Its repeal "raises a number of issues about the sentencing options that a judge has."
Officials in the U.S. attorney's office, who say the act failed to insure community safety despite growing public pressure for stiffer sentencing laws, are expected to insist that any new youth law further restrict the age of eligible offenders while eliminating eligibility for those with substantial criminal records and those facing sentencing for violent crimes.
"I don't think there's any doubt that in the judgment Congress reached, the act failed," said U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova. "The rising tide about sexual abuse of children, the abuse of PCP by offenders and their violent acts . . . would lead us to be very wary of reinstituting a broad youth corrections act."
Defense lawyers, meanwhile, maintain that the old law functioned well.
"I don't think there's a real basis to say that youth act sentences are a failure," said Charles Ogletree, deputy director of the D.C. Public Defender Service. "It's clear that in this jurisdiction judges have not been granting youth act sentences to the real serious and violent offenders."
One reason for the youth act repeal was the growing movement away from indeterminate or open-ended sentences. In the same crime package approved this session, Congress also abolished the federal parole system and established a commission to provide new sentencing guidelines for federal judges.
But federal law enforcement authorities and judges also expressed concern that offenders receiving youth act sentences have been found guilty of increasingly more violent crimes, and that use of the statute had strayed from Congress' original intent.
When the law was enacted in 1950, juvenile crime was not the concern that it is today. Congress wanted to rehabilitate youths by providing them with training programs, counseling and teaching, and by placing them in facilities separate from adult criminals.
Since that time, appellate courts have given broad interpretation to the statute, requiring that judges give a youth act sentence regardless of the seriousness of the crime, unless they reach a finding that the offender would receive "no benefit" from the program.
Prosecutors complain that this has permitted even offenders convicted of first degree murder to receive youth act sentences that make them immediately eligible for parole. City statute requires a mandatory 20 years to life for adults convicted of the same offense.
Any new statute, prosecutors argue, should be limited to misdemeanors or property crimes, and allow judges to consider the backgrounds of offenders before sentencing.
"What we know from looking at the young adult felon in the District of Columbia and elsewhere is that all of these offenders have extensive juvenile records," diGenova said.
In recent months, city corrections officials also have raised concerns about offenders sentenced under the youth act. Some, they maintain, do not belong in the youth facilities at Lorton Reformatory because they show no interest in the program and are too disruptive.
Martin is one of several inmates whom the city has asked the court to transfer to the adult compound, citing his record of nine disciplinary charges, ranging from destruction of property to assault, arson and possession of a weapon.
The Public Defender Service did not oppose the request in court because Martin said he preferred to move to the adult facility.
But in other cases, defense lawyers are fighting such transfers.
"We need the youth act because of the number of people who have one contact with the criminal justice system and otherwise lead exemplary lives," said Ogletree. "There is a sense that people who have that one contact, particularly people who may only have been an aider or abettor . . . should not have to contend with that mistake for the rest of their lives."