correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated how much time Eddie Ellis spent in prison. It was 15 years. The story has been corrected.
A bill to overhaul the District's troubled Youth Rehabilitation Act would limit the number of young offenders eligible for more lenient sentences and require judges to justify — in writing — why they are giving convicts benefits under the law.
But the bill also would require the city to offer new treatment and services to young-adult offenders, a change that is being applauded by juvenile-justice advocates, many of whom had been openly critical of adding any restrictions to the 32-year-old law.
The law currently allows individuals under the age of 22 to receive shorter sentences and to have their crimes removed from the public record.
But although it is called the Youth Rehabilitation Act, a study by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council found that there are no programs specifically tailored to rehabilitating youth who are sentenced under the law.
"For years, we've called it the Youth Act and left out the R," said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council's judiciary committee and authored the legislation to overhaul the act. "It's like the rehabilitation part was just forgotten."
Allen and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked the criminal justice council to study the Youth Rehabilitation Act following The Washington Post's investigation that found hundreds of young-adult offenders who had been provided leniency under the law later went on to rob, rape or murder.
Bowser, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine and the council pledged to work together to reform the law, the shortcomings of which they said they had not been aware of before The Post's reporting.
A key provision of Allen's bill would eliminate a requirement that D.C. Superior Court judges decide at sentencing whether young offenders should be eligible to have their crimes removed from the public record. Offenders would instead serve their full sentences before the judge determined whether their records could be cleared.
The bill would also require the mayor's office to submit a strategic plan to the Council by Jan. 1, 2019, "to provide comprehensive treatment and services to youth offenders and youth and young adults at risk of becoming youth offenders."
Kevin Donahue, Bowser's deputy mayor for public safety, said at a public hearing Thursday that the mayor's office supports Allen's legislation and is committed to exploring "additional programming opportunities" for young offenders and those at risk of becoming offenders.
Racine's office also supports Allen's bill, which would amend the existing law. Seema Gajwani, special counsel to Racine, said the new legislation "honors the compassion of the original law, while protecting public safety."
Eddie Ellis, who was convicted of manslaughter when he was 16 and sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act, testified at the hearing Thursday that the new requirement for education and job-training programs would ease the transition of leaving prison.
"When we come home, a lot of us don't have the strength to remain strong if we can't get a job," said Ellis, who spent 15 years being shipped to prisons around the country and emerged without basic life skills, including how to ride the Metro. "There would have been fewer struggles if those programs were in place."
At the same time, Ellis said he did benefit from having his records sealed as part of the terms of his sentencing under the Youth Rehabilitation Act. He said not having employers know about his youthful conviction allowed him to find steady work. He now runs a nonprofit organization dedicated to youth mentorship and helping those who have been incarcerated reenter society.
Ellis said his success story is one of the many that was not reflected in The Post's series, which focused on the failings of the law, including the 121 defendants previously sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act who were charged with murder from 2010 to 2016.
"There was a fear factor after the articles were written," Ellis said. "There were people who wanted to take the Youth Act away completely. I'm glad council member Allen stood fast and brought together this broad coalition."
Allen said he would take into consideration requests from Racine's office and a number of criminal-justice reform advocates who want to raise the age of eligibility for leniency under the law from 22 to 24.
In her testimony, Gajwani said brain development research shows that up to age 24, young adults "continue to make risky, immature decisions that might not reflect who they will be once fully mature."
Research also shows that young adults up to age 24 are "more amenable to rehabilitation than their adult peers," she said. Bowser's Summer Youth Employment Program already includes 18- to 24-year-olds.
Donahue said during questioning at the hearing that although he could not offer a formal position on whether Bowser might be open to increasing the age of eligibility, he recognizes that "the unique needs of an individual do not magically end at 18 or 22."
Criminal-justice reform advocates also oppose a provision of the legislation that would exclude those convicted of certain sex crimes — first- or second-degree sexual crimes, or sexual assault against a minor — from being eligible for leniency. The current law excludes people convicted of murder. Advocates said judges should have discretion on whether to exclude people on a case-by-case bases.
"Ending mass incarceration cannot occur while excluding serious crimes from sentencing reforms," said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, in her testimony. "Mandatory minimum sentences are ineffective and unfair. This is true for all crimes, including sex offenses and crimes of violence."
But Denise Krepp, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the Hill East neighborhood, delivered a passionate defense for excluding those convicted of rape. Krepp's neighbor, a 40-year-old college professor, was brutally raped in 2015 by Antwon Pitt, who had been sentenced under the Youth Act and whose story was highlighted in the Post series.
"I don't need studies to tell me that victims suffer," Krepp said. "This is a story I've heard over and over again."
Allen said although he respects the opinion of advocates who want all crimes to be eligible for leniency and for judges to have complete discretion, he believes that murder and rape are crimes so harmful that they must be excluded.
"The victim of that rape will never be able to seal and turn off whathappened to them," Allen said. "It will have a lasting impact and be something they carry for the rest of their life."