There is a bipartisan movement underway on Capitol Hill to reform the U.S. criminal-justice system. The Coalition for Public Safety, comprising groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Koch Industries and the NAACP, is fighting for a system with no mandatory minimum sentences, reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and adequate counsel regardless of income. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, recently spoke optimistically about the bill’s passage.
While these efforts are important, they highlight the need for reform in the juvenile justice system, which is managed almost exclusively at the state and local levels. In the District, for example, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested 2,980 children in 2014. A staggering 77 percent of those arrests were for nonviolent, non-weapons offenses. That same year, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General prosecuted 1,460 children. After arrest, kids are held at the Youth Services Center, a detention facility with a long history of overcrowding, until they are able to appear before a judge, or longer depending on the charge. This incarceration starts children down a track of identifying as criminals, making them less likely to complete high school and more likely to commit crimes as adults.
A recent op-ed in Fusion co-written by Christine Leonard, former director of the Coalition for Public Safety, called for an overhaul of juvenile criminal systems — including efforts to safely and effectively divert kids from the systems in the first place. Diversion is the process of rerouting arrested kids out of the traditional justice system and into a program focused on restorative justice and rehabilitation.
For many years, the Youth Court of the District of Columbia, a community nonprofit, served as a diversion program for first-time nonviolent juvenile offenders. However, its doors were shuttered in early 2014 after funding from grants through the mayor’s office ran out. Youth Court worked with police officers and schools and allowed them to refer juvenile arrestees to the program, which let juveniles avoid detention time, court appearances, probation officers and juvenile adjudication records.
Youth Court placed the minor before a jury of peers, which doled out individualized sanctions such as requiring a written apology, hours of community service, essay writing and future participation as a juror. The program also offered tailored coaching sessions, behavioral counseling where needed and mentorship opportunities. Youth Court had an 11 percent recidivism rate — well below the national average of 20 to 29 percent.
In Youth Court’s absence, the D.C. Justice Grants Administration noted in a recent report that the city lacks a sufficient diversion program and that without a mechanism to divert youth, “large numbers of youth are unnecessarily charged and processed through the system, thus increasing a youth’s probability of further delinquencies due to their exposure to other delinquent youth during this process.” While the D.C. Council has proposed a bill for juvenile justice reform, it does not mention diversion programming.
Ultimately, if we want to reduce the number of adults in prison, we need to capitalize on a juvenile’s first minor offense as an opportunity to make meaningful change. The adult detention system is rarely a person’s introduction into the criminal-justice system. According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, roughly 40 percent of career criminals are arrested before their 18th birthday, and more than 95 percent of those juvenile arrests are for nonviolent crimes such as property damage or status crimes such as truancy.
Youth Court deserves the support of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Attorney General Karl A. Racine. With engagement from the community, faith-based organizations and D.C. taxpayers, the District can reduce its adult crime rate with reform focused on restorative justice in the juvenile system — where many adult offenders, sadly, get their start.
Erica L. Marshall is an attorney at the Cause of Action Institute, a nonprofit government accountability organization, and serves as a volunteer attorney at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Youth Court of the District of Columbia, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
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