D.C. lawmakers began wrestling with how to revise a sentencing law Thursday, citing a Washington Post series that found the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act provided leniency to hundreds of adult offenders who went on to rob, rape or murder in recent years in the nation’s capital.
The D.C. Council hearing quickly exposed fault lines over how to change the law, which was originally designed to rehabilitate inexperienced criminals under the age of 22.
Although the District has not provided any special services to those sentenced under the law for decades, The Post found that it remains a tool used widely by judges to give violent offenders shorter prison sentences and a chance to have their convictions sealed from public view.
Facing a hearing room crowded with defense attorneys and juvenile justice advocates who support the law, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the new chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, treaded lightly.
Allen began the hearing saying that he intended to find “what’s working, what’s not working and to chart a course” for improvement.
Five hours into the hearing — filled with emotional testimony from convicts who said they had benefited from having their records sealed — Allen made clear that he has no intention of repealing the Youth Act.
He said he would like to restore the rehabilitation services promised but not delivered under the law and to curb judges who exploit its provisions to hand out overly lenient sentences.
Allen focused on the 700 cases documented by The Post 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.
Comparing the Youth Act with states’ more-limited second-chance laws, which often allow expungement for nonviolent or first-time offenses only, Allen called the D.C. law an “outlier.”
Even limited curbs on the Youth Act, however, were criticized, including by a liberal member of the council, David Grosso (I-At Large).
Grosso spoke about the case of Antwon Pitt, a Youth Act recipient who raped a woman in the District’s Hill East neighborhood after release from prison for a robbery charge. Grosso said the case said less about the effectiveness of the Youth Act than about the District’s failing mental-health system.
“We’re sending people off to prison who, if they had gotten the mental-health treatment in the first place . . . wouldn’t be going to prison,” Grosso said. “We need to make sure people are being cared for, and we’re not.”
Grosso’s comments echoed the council debate more than three decades ago that led to the approval of the Youth Act.
Amid an epidemic of crack-cocaine use and rising numbers of young men being charged with drug crimes in the 1980s, the council approved the law, saying it would help protect African American youths from the stigma of criminal records.
The law remained in effect over ensuing decades, however, even as the federal government took over supervision of D.C. prisoners, leaving the city with no ability to provide rehabilitation to those given leniency.
Under the split local-federal control of the District’s criminal justice system, no entity tracked the use of the law until The Post did so last year.
Using available sentencing data and court records, The Post found that judges had given roughly 2,300 Youth Act sentences to young offenders for weapons offenses or crimes of violence since 2010.
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.
The Post also found that at least 121 defendants sentenced under the Youth Act had gone on to be charged with murder in the District since 2010.
In a presentation to the committee Thursday, the head of the District’s Sentencing Commission confirmed some of The Post’s findings. Over a slightly different time period, the commission reported just over 3,000 Youth Act sentences were handed down. Almost 1,350 of those were for violent crimes, and 650 involved guns or other weapons.
Kevin Donahue, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety, testified that the lack of data before now on how the Youth Act had been applied was an embarrassment.
“It is unacceptable that it took a newspaper creating its own software program to provide our residents with an analysis of important components of our criminal law,” Donahue said.
Donahue testified that he is intent on improving the law. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) set a deadline of July for a council of criminal justice leaders to review the Youth Act and recommend changes.
Allen said he had received preliminary data from that review, and it showed that roughly 20 percent of individuals sentenced under the Youth Act are convicted of a subsequent violent crime — a number, he said, that “is entirely too high.”
Allen also said the review shows that the recidivism is driven by Youth Act recipients who fail to comply with the terms of their release.
Just 3 percent of Youth Act recipients who successfully complete their release go on to commit additional crimes, he said, but the figure is “four to five times” as high among those who demonstrate that they will not comply with the orders of their parole or probation.
“That would seem to give us an area to focus our resources,” Allen said.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Natalie O. Ludaway proposed a change to the Youth Act: She said that the city could continue to grant judges the discretion to seal a wide swath of offenders’ records but that they should make the decision after a sentence is complete, when an offender “can demonstrate positive life changes.”
Doing so, Ludaway said, would keep judges from having to make the decision at the time of sentencing and “to guess which young offenders will learn from their mistakes.”