“When we’re talking about individuals specifically with guns, I think that’s a different category,” Contee said in an interview. “We can’t treat them like everybody else, like you do every other offense.” He argued that the Youth Act contributes to a system that does more to support the people who carry and shoot illegal guns than the people who get shot.
“What have we done in this space of really holding people accountable and advocating on behalf of people who have been on the receiving end of some of the trauma by people who fall under the YRA?” he asked. “I don’t feel like it’s a balanced approach.”
His concerns about the law were echoed by D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who noted that she wasn’t sure she would want to modify the law specifically to exclude gun crimes and not some other violent offenses.
“These are not minor offenses that we’re talking about,” she said. “Some could be heinous crimes and still qualify.”
The push for reform comes after a story in The Washington Post revealed that 51 percent of the convicts sentenced under the act between 2019 and 2020 had committed a crime with a firearm, according to court data. During that same period, more than 1,600 people in the city were shot, leaving 307 of them dead. The story examined the case of a man whose negligence with an illegal gun left a four-year-old girl paralyzed.
On May 25, 2020, My’onna Hinton followed her seven-year-old relative, Tee, into a friend’s apartment in Southeast. Inside, a child who lived there handed Tee the weapon. Believing it was a toy, he fired it, sending a round through My’onna’s neck. When the gun’s owner, Juwan T. Ford, learned what had happened, he ran inside, stepping past My’onna’s bleeding body and ordering Tee to hand him the weapon, a prosecutor later said. As the kids fled, Ford, then 23, wrapped the gun in a black shirt and walked out, leaving My’onna to die alone.
Ford eventually took a plea deal, admitting to carrying a pistol without a license and attempting to tamper with evidence. A year after the shooting, Ford told D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz that he had removed the gun, which was never found, because he “just wanted to help.” Kravitz decided that Ford — whose two prior gun arrests didn’t lead to convictions — deserved leniency, calling him “precisely the type of person that the Youth Rehabilitation Act exists for.”
He sentenced Ford to 18 months in prison, with the threat of another 12 months if he broke the terms of his plea deal before finishing three years of probation and rehabilitation. That means Ford, who received credit for the nine months he’d already served, is scheduled for release next spring and, under the D.C. law, his record could be cleared by 2025, just before My’onna’s 10th birthday.
“I was horrified to learn of the senseless shooting of young My’onna,” Bonds said in a statement to The Post. “The alleged careless lack of compassion and assistance to the victim by Mr. Ford is hurtful and irrational. Nobody should ever be given lenient treatment under our local criminal justice system for wanton neglect of a wounded or dying child. I agreed with my Council colleagues in 2018 that we needed to raise the age for adult felony prosecutions in most cases because so many younger offenders are not fully intellectually developed at the time of their offense. However, this case has exposed a significant loophole that warrants Council review and action. I am committed to learning more from Chief Contee, others in the D.C. criminal justice community, and especially our mental health practitioners about this situation.”
The Youth Act, as it is often called, was created in 1985. The law’s supporters say it makes the city safer and helps curb mass incarceration by offering young former convicts a better opportunity to get jobs, loans and housing.
The law’s detractors, including police and prosecutors, have long criticized it for providing a reprieve to violent criminals, because only those guilty of the most heinous crimes — murder and sexual abuse — are barred from consideration. Five years ago, a Post investigation found hundreds sentenced under the Youth Act went on to commit rapes, robberies and homicides.
Despite those findings, the D.C. Council voted unanimously in 2018 to expand the pool of people who qualified, raising the age limit to 24 because of research showing that young minds aren’t fully developed before then.
Bowser said she opposed the age change and has remained concerned about the law since. “I think the residents of Washington, D.C., want us focused on keeping our streets safer,” she said. “They want to make sure any penalty or incarceration time associated with a violent crime … is actually realized. Victims don’t want to be surprised that sentences are truncated.”
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who authored the amendment to the act three years ago, maintained that making D.C.’s streets safer is the most important reason to preserve the law. The 2018 revisions, supported unanimously by the council, went beyond the age change. Among them are providing the court with specific factors to consider when deciding if someone should qualify (including the convict’s past crimes, home life and capacity for rehabilitation), delaying judges’ final decisions on whether they should hide people’s convictions until after sentences have been completed, and requiring regular reviews of the law’s effectiveness.
The analysis that helped inform Allen’s approach (drawn from people eligible for the act between 2010 and 2012) did not specifically assess the reoffense rates among those who had committed gun crimes, but it did show that convicts whose records were hidden from public view were much less likely to commit a new crime in the two years after completing their sentences.
“I’m somebody who also believes we have to have accountability when harm is done. And we also have to be able to focus on safety, and a lower recidivism rate makes us safer,” he said. “We have these detailed reviews that show us that people sentenced under the YRA are less likely to reoffend, less likely to do harm than if they didn’t have the YRA. So I don’t believe we should turn away from evidence.”
Allen said he wouldn’t want to alter the law unless the next analysis, due a year from now, revealed new data that changed his mind.
For victims, however, there’s also the question of whether it’s just to give a reprieve to the offenders who destroyed their lives.
“I mean, we believe in an independent judiciary, so the courts and the judge make decisions,” Allen said. “And certainly, people can disagree with judge’s decisions, but the judge is empowered to be able to follow this. They don’t have to apply anything from the YRA if they don’t choose.”
My’onna’s mother, Brayonna Hinton, had pleaded with the judge not to give Ford a break, but she was incensed that such a decision was even up to him. She called it “ridiculous” that Ford could be eligible, insisting that the law needs to change.
“How could someone be that careless and that uncaring?” she had told Ford and the court at a May hearing. “Like you saw it and you walked away. Now, you want to act like you care. You didn’t care then when that baby was laying on the ground sitting there bleeding. You walked away. And of course now you care, now you have remorse because you’re facing jail time. But they need to have a message sent to them that they need to care beforehand.”
Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.