The District’s mayor, attorney general and leaders of the D.C. Council are pledging to work together to reform the city’s second-chance law for youthful offenders, likely putting curbs on the leniency measure that allows repeat and violent offenders to quickly return to the streets.
Their vow to fix the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act ends the year on a rare note of political unity. Leaders of the three branches of city government have sparred in recent months over matters as diverse as family leave benefits and campaign-finance reform. But the trio cited a series published by The Washington Post in pushing together for change.
In public statements, letters and interviews last week, the officials said they had been unaware of the effects of the sentencing law before The Post’s reporting and were concerned that the newspaper had uncovered evidence that its application has endangered public safety.
The Post found a pattern of violent offenders sentenced under the Youth Act going on to rob, rape or kill residents of the nation’s capital. Since 2010, 121 defendants previously sentenced under the Youth Act have been charged with murder — 1 in 5 of all suspects charged with murder in the city in that period. A quarter of the killings occurred when the suspects were on probation, often in lieu of any prison sentence.
In a letter sent Friday to local and federal criminal justice leaders, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) called for a deep but swift examination of the Youth Act over the next six months. Bowser said she wants reforms ready for consideration by the time the D.C. Council convenes for its fall legislative session.
The mayor suggested that the Youth Act, which provides a package of leniency options unique in the United States, should no longer be available to anyone convicted of a violent crime.
“As Mayor, my highest duty is to make the District of Columbia safer and stronger by ensuring that our laws protect our residents from repeat violent offenders,” Bowser wrote. “Proper application of the Youth Act can ensure that it has the intended effect of offering non-violent young adults an opportunity for a second chance.”
But Bowser wrote that she wants the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to study the law and its impact and use data to structure reforms.
The council includes heads of nine local and federal law enforcement and supervision agencies, the chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court as well as political leaders. It holds monthly meetings to discuss problems that arise out of the unique local-federal split under which the city’s justice system is administered.
As an example of that split, D.C. lawmakers write criminal code in the city, and D.C. police make arrests, but Congress funds the city’s courts, and those convicted of violating local laws serve time in federal prison and remain under federal supervision during their release in the community.
The original intent of the 1985 Youth Act was to rehabilitate inexperienced criminals under the age of 22. It allows for shorter sentences for some crimes and an opportunity for offenders eventually to emerge with no criminal record, even for crimes of violence or many of those involving guns.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, who has been working to expand juvenile diversion programs in the city, called the information revealed in The Post’s series disturbing. He said the coordinating council must examine recidivism rates and other impacts to justify whether the law should remain a sentencing tool.
Racine also said the city must figure out how to reestablish the law’s rehabilitation programs. The Post found that despite its name, those who receive sentences under the Youth Rehabilitation Act have for decades received no particular rehabilitative treatment before release. Often, though, they serve fewer years than do offenders with similar criminal histories who commit similar crimes.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the incoming chairman of the council’s Judiciary Committee, said that reforming the Youth Act would be a top priority and that he plans to hold a hearing shortly after taking over the committee in January.
“Reading the series has really concerned me, as it has many people,” Allen said. “There isn’t any question in my mind that we have to address what has been uncovered. And responding to my constituents, I’ve said, we have to never be afraid to dig into a law and find out what’s working and what’s not.”
Allen said he was particularly concerned about the lengths to which The Post had to go to track the effects of the law.
The Post wrote software to extract data on every criminal case available in electronic dockets on the Superior Court’s website. It compared the information to a database of dates and outcomes of cases maintained by the D.C. Sentencing Commission. Post reporters then manually combed through hundreds of court files to reconcile the cases and track the offenders as they cycled through the criminal justice system.
“Essentially, [The Post] had to re-create the data from whole cloth,” Allen said. “There seems to be a real lack of oversight and evaluation.”
In her letter, Bowser wrote that the coordinating council must develop a plan for how “information on the Youth Act’s application will be provided regularly to the public so that our criminal justice system is held accountable to our residents.”
At a closed-door meeting of the council last week, the group discussed the Youth Act series for more than two hours, according to several members present. “The gist of it was, ‘Why are we finding out about the Youth Act effects in The Washington Post?’ ” said one attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the confidential meeting.
The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Channing D. Phillips, is a member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In a statement, he said he looked forward to a “comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of the Youth Rehabilitation Act to determine what can and should be done to improve its effectiveness.”
Some residents are pressing the council for reform. Denise Krepp has worked with fellow Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioners to draft a proposal to limit Youth Act sentences to those convicted of nonviolent crimes. She also has sought additional oversight by leaders in Congress and the Justice Department.