Now that the D.C. Council has voted to give the city’s commuter-dominated workforce one of the most generous family and medical leave laws in the country, will our legislators have the time, inclination and, equally important, intellectual depth necessary to address a public-safety issue that confronts all residents and visitors to our nation’s capital?
For those who missed it, The Post published a series on the city’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, a measure designed to give second chances to young adult offenders. The law allows judges to hand down shorter sentences to offenders for some crimes, as well as a chance for them to emerge with no criminal record.
Among the findings: Hundreds of violent offenders sentenced under the Youth Act returned to the streets to rob, rape and kill.
The Post uncovered cases of 750 offenders sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act not once but multiple times in the past decade, including 121 later charged with murder, more than 200 sentenced for multiple violent or weapons offenses, and at least 136 convicted of armed robbery.
Those somber statistics mask a starker reality. Think of the elderly woman held at gunpoint, the children held hostage by a box-cutter-wielding assailant, the man slashed and stomped on for being gay, the man held at gunpoint during a carjacking, the young man killed in a crossfire near a Metro station — all victims of offenders put back on the streets under the second-chance law.
A stipulation: I’m not a fan of “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” My family tree has a member who attended Penn State, another who served in a state pen.
Among the King family’s closest acquaintances are convicted felons whom we trust with all we hold dear. I believe that with help, young offenders can change and become productive citizens. And also that we, as a community — families, schools, churches, civic groups, etc. — do too little to prevent our young people from becoming offenders in the first place.
That said, repeat violent offenders are an appalling fact of D.C. life.
The label “repeat violent offender” is a consequence of behavior. The repeat offender is, however, also a product of actions taken, or not taken, by prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and corrections officials under the auspices of the city-created Youth Rehabilitation Act.
Speaking of judges, I’m not joining those who may want to drum them out of town after reading the series.
A respected senior jurist told me: “The hardest job a trial judge has is assessing the risk in pretrial release and sentencing — a risk that goes with the job.
“I would not want,” he said, “to be a member of a society where judges were afraid to take calculated and intelligent risk while being fully aware that some decisions are not going to pan out. . . . I know no intelligent jurist who has or could get them all correct.”
Hence, this week’s search for answers from the city’s powers that be.
I spoke with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue.
Both said they were surprised by the scope of The Post’s findings but were also disappointed in the lack of data on all offenders sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act.
Racine expressed the need for “data points” to show the extent to which sentencing decisions deviate from the law’s objectives. “This is the kind of information the public is owed,” he said. Racine also said he will raise The Post’s findings and his concerns about the implementation of the Youth Rehabilitation Act with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an interagency group of city and federal officials, chaired by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and on which the attorney general serves.
Donahue said the series “raised the question of the law’s overall impact and the need for careful examination to determine whether it needs to be reformed.”
He wrote in an email: “Improving transparency across the District’s unique criminal justice system is an initial, concrete step that will provide the public with information they’re entitled to receive as well as allowing our residents to hold the system accountable”; “all agencies . . . must commit to a system of . . . transparency”; and “we look forward to working with our . . . partners to ensure greater transparency in our criminal justice system.”
Transparency. Got it.
I also spoke with the council’s overseer of the city’s criminal justice system, Judiciary Committee Chairman Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5).
This is the same committee that came up with a plan last year to pay gun offenders to stay out of trouble. The committee that declared gun violence a public health problem to be remedied by stationing social workers at emergency rooms. The proposals were shelved when Bowser refused to fund either idea.
McDuffie stated that the Youth Rehabilitation Act should not be repealed — a proposal I had not heard. He agreed data on Youth Rehabilitation Act recidivism needed collecting, but he said the focus belongs on the criminal justice system’s failure to rehabilitate offenders. He also echoed Racine and Donahue’s intent to discuss the act with the coordinating council.
As they deliberate, residents and visitors please step lively.
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