A majority of the D.C. Council has signed on to a bill to overhaul the District's Youth Rehabilitation Act, a law that a Washington Post investigation found provided leniency to hundreds of young-adult offenders who went on to rob, rape or murder in recent years in the nation's capital.
The bill, authored by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), would make those charged with some sex crimes ineligible for leniency under the act and would require new vocational and other programs for young offenders.
It also would eliminate a provision that required D.C. Superior Court judges to decide at sentencing whether defendants 21 or younger should later have their crimes removed from the public record. Instead, offenders would have to serve their full sentences before returning to court to ask that their records be cleared.
Allen, who chairs the council’s judiciary committee, said the change would create an incentive for good behavior post-conviction and give judges the benefit of years of observations by jail officials and others before making that decision.
“When you ask a judge to use a crystal ball, there are going to be mistakes,” Allen said. “We’re trying to take the crystal ball out of their hands.”
The 1985 law was intended to help young offenders avoid the lifelong stigma of a criminal record. But the Post analysis last year revealed that 121 defendants previously sentenced under the Youth Act had been charged with murder from 2010 to 2016 — 1 in 5 of all suspects charged with that offense during those years.
The Post also found that judges had given roughly 2,300 Youth Act sentences to young offenders for weapons offenses or crimes of violence between 2010 and 2016. On average, the offenders received about 60 percent of the prison time of non-Youth Act offenders who had comparable criminal histories and had committed similar crimes.
Citing the Post series, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in December said she wanted an overhaul ready for debate in time for the council’s fall legislative session, which begins Tuesday.
She and Allen called on the District’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to examine the Youth Act. The CJCC has not released its analysis publicly, but a synopsis circulated by Allen’s office said it found that recidivism “doesn’t improve whether or not the young adult was sentenced under” the Youth Act. The coordinating council also found instances of repeat convictions within two years to be “very rare.”
Allen’s bill would prevent anyone convicted of a first- or second-degree sexual crime, or anyone convicted of sexual assault against a minor, from qualifying for leniency under the Youth Act.
The bill would also lay out criteria by which judges would determine who gets to have a crime expunged under the law, including whether the crime was violent and whether the offender had been previously sentenced under the Youth Act, according to a draft copy of the legislation. The bill would require judges to justify in writing why convicts received benefits of the Youth Act.
The newspaper investigation documented more than 700 cases in which offenders received Youth Act sentences multiple times, including 200 cases in which offenders were given leniency for two or more separate crimes involving weapons or violence.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), one of seven council members whom Allen said have signed as co-introducers of the legislation, said he expects the bill to be brought to a vote later this year or early next year, because it would have budget implications.
A provision requiring the mayor to develop a plan for “workforce development and vocational training, healthcare, housing, family, and reentry needs” has won over some juvenile-justice advocates, many of whom had been openly critical of restricting the Youth Act.
“One thing that has come to light . . . since the Washington Post series is that while the YRA existed, it wasn’t really being implemented,” said Eduardo Ferrer, policy director at the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative. “This would require the mayor to develop a plan for targeting this young population and provide them with the services they need to make sure they are not reoffending.”
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, called the proposal a “promising approach” to improving the rehabilitation services available to young adults in the District. But Schindler, who sharply criticized parts of The Post’s series, said he would like to see a broader discussion about extending the age for which Youth Act sentences could be given — perhaps up to age 25.
In part of the series, The Post reported on the impact of crimes committed by a young, violent offender named Joshua Mayo. Kristin and Dave Van Goor, residents of Hill East, described how their lives were upended in the aftermath of an armed robbery and car theft later linked to Mayo. Mayo was driving their car days later when he was arrested for the armed robbery of a local schoolteacher, an incident for which he was later convicted.
Kristin Van Goor was also in Allen’s working group and said she raised some concerns about the accuracy of the data in the CJCC study. For instance, in Mayo’s case, he pleaded guilty to an armed robbery with an imitation firearm, but court records show that a real gun was recovered.
“That continues to be one of my concerns because I’m not sure we have a full picture,” she said. “If there’s a pattern of violent behavior, that person should probably be excluded from the Youth Act.”
Van Goor says she is satisfied with most of Allen’s proposed changes. One involves sentencing advocates who would help guide victims and offenders through what can be a frustrating and sometimes confusing process.
The Van Goors, however, have decided that their days in Washington are numbered. They plan to move to the suburbs in the next few years. On one recent morning — when she was leaving her house to attend a Youth Act task force meeting — Van Goor woke up to find that a brick had been thrown through her car window.
“It kind of just wears on you,” she said.