THE DISTRICT has had on its books since 1985 a law that gives judges extraordinary discretion in whether to give youthful offenders a second chance. The commendable aim is to give young people an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, change their ways and have futures unburdened by a criminal record. As desirable as those goals are, particularly given concerns over racial disparities in criminal justice and over-incarceration, the question has emerged of whether the District has endangered public safety by tilting too far toward leniency.
A recent Post investigation analyzing the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act suggests yes. Judges in D.C. Superior Court need to review how they use the law, and the D.C. Council should assess whether limits should be placed on who can benefit from it.
Post reporters Amy Brittain, Aaron C. Davis and Steven Rich, in an unprecedented examination of how the law has been applied, concluded that hundreds of criminals sentenced under the District’s unique law have gone on to rob, rape or kill. The court doesn’t maintain records on the law’s implementation, so there are built-in limitations to The Post’s review: those who successfully completed the terms of their sentences without reoffending had their records expunged and so weren’t included.
Nonetheless, instances of the law giving license to some hardened criminals are startling. At least 121 defendants sentenced under the act went on to be charged with murder since 2010 with 30 of the killings taking place while the suspects were on probation and four occurring while the defendants would have been incarcerated if not given a sentencing break. At least 750 offenders were sentenced multiple times under the act, effectively turning that second chance into a third or fourth chance. Most distressing was the violent nature of some of the crimes — an elderly woman robbed at gunpoint, a gay man beaten in a hate crime, an armed home invasion. Of the 3,188 sentences for felony crimes handed down between 2010 and 2016, 73 percent involved violent crimes or weapons offenses. Murder is the only crime not eligible for youth act sentencing.
The D.C. Council needs to revisit the issue of whether breaks should be given and records expunged to those guilty of violent criminal acts. Also worth examining is whether defendants should get multiple chances under the law, whether 22 is the right age cutoff and what can be done to better provide offenders with the support and services they need to turn their lives around. At the same time, there should be some soul searching at D.C. Superior Court. It is to its discredit that it failed to collect data on how this law has worked. And the lack of empathy, even callousness, demonstrated by some judges toward community concerns and victims suggests that part of the problem is not with the wording of a law but with the person implementing it from the bench.