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Juvenile justice advocates and police at odds over reform bill

Metropolitan Police Chief Robert J. Contee III addresses media during a news conference in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 31, 2021. (Eric Lee/For the Washington Post)

The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would change the way police can investigate young people suspected of committing crimes, including banning consent searches of those under 18 and requiring an attorney be present for interrogations of youths that may later be used in court.

Supporters of the Youth Rights Amendment Act of 2021 say juveniles should not be treated in the same ways as adults because young people may not fully understand their rights and the potential implications of their situation. But the proposed law has gotten pushback from D.C. police, who say it would limit their ability to fight a rise in violent crime.

“The Youth Rights Amendment Act of 2021 is essential to protecting young Black and brown residents who make up the District’s entire juvenile system,” said Naïké Savain, policy counsel at the D.C. Justice Lab. She said “interactions between children and police have the potential to derail their entire lives.”

Within the District, juvenile justice has been one of the key topics at the forefront of debates and legislation focused on policing practices and the criminal justice system.

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine in June proposed the Redefinition of Child Amendment Act of 2021, a bill that would require prosecutors seeking to charge a juvenile as an adult to receive permission from a judge, to the council. He views the legislation as a way to keep juveniles out of adult prisons and have a greater opportunity of rehabilitating young people who commit crimes.

The council is also weighing a bill that would require local education agencies to collect data on school-based disciplinary actions involving law enforcement.

But the efforts of the council to change the way possible youthful offenders are treated by police has met resistance from D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee III, who spoke out against the Youth Rights Amendment Act at an October D.C. Council public hearing. He said that such a shift would restrict officers as they try to quell violence in a city that is experiencing rising homicides and has seen a spike in carjackings, including some high-profile cases involving juveniles.

The chief said at that point in October, police had arrested 78 juveniles in connection with carjackings this year, including four youths arrested more than once. He said that over a 22-month period, 17 juveniles had been arrested in homicide cases.

“When we have credible evidence that they committed the crimes — from their own statements or surrendered weapons — we cannot dismiss this evidence and allow them to continue to endanger the community under the theory that they are not responsible for either their actions or their words,” Contee said.

Girls, 13 and 15, charged with murder after alleged carjacking attempt in D.C.

Contee said the bill would “make it exceedingly difficult to ensure that youth who are committing serious crimes are held accountable and get the support they need to redirect their lives.”

In an interview, Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who helped to introduce the Youth Rights Amendment Act, pushed back against the police opposition and said the bills are aimed at ensuring youths who encounter police are treated fairly.

“Nothing in these bills take away punishment or consequences,” White said. “What they do is, one, make sure that the way law enforcement approaches and advises young people of their rights is developmentally appropriate so that the system does not take advantage of less informed and developed minds. It also provides a possible path for alternatives to incarceration, when it is appropriate, so that we are focusing on rehabilitating young people.”

White also said doing more to help youthful offenders would make the city safer.

“The evidence in studies have shown very consistently that when young people are given the appropriate supports after they commit crimes, they are much less likely to commit crimes in the future,” he said. “These bills help us prevent more crimes in the future.”

Danielle Robinette, policy attorney for The Children’s Law Center, said in written testimony to the D.C. Council that changing the way police approach possible youthful offenders would “lessen the likelihood that an interaction between a young person and the police escalates into a dangerous situation.”

Robinette wrote that the proposed changes are particularly important when police come into contact with young people who have disabilities or who have suffered trauma and their response to police may be “misread as noncompliance or involuntary consent by law enforcement.”

Juvenile justice advocates have long expressed that policing practices disproportionately affect Black and Latino populations and people with disabilities.

In an interview, Eduardo Ferrer, a Georgetown University law professor and legal and policy director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, countered Contee’s assertions about the potential impact of the proposed law.

“I think the push back from police officers is that they want their jobs to be easier,” Ferrer said. "Right now, because young people 'consent’ more easily because of what we know about adolescence, then police officers can do things like search their bags, get them to waive their rights and talk in situations where an adult would not.”

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety, was clear that the current versions of the bills were not final. No date has been set for a committee vote on the bills.

White said he believed everyone was focused on safe communities, but there needed to be a rethinking about the best way to get there.

“I think most of us want the same thing, but, particularly in more difficult times, it can be hard for us to think about new ways to address crime because we have become accustomed to a certain style of policing and a certain style of prosecution,” White said. “At the end of the day, we want to be safer than we are right now and that will necessarily require us to try new things.”