D.C. COUNCIL member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) opened a hearing on sentencing practices in the District with a startling revelation. Preliminary analysis has shown that roughly 20 percent of those sentenced under the city’s unique law giving a second chance to youthful offenders were convicted of a subsequent violent crime. Even more startling, though, was how that number — rightly characterized by Mr. Allen as “entirely too high” — seemed not to faze those who have dug in their heels against making any changes to the controversial law.
The Youth Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1985 as a way to provide rehabilitation opportunities to inexperienced criminals under age 22, is being debated in the wake of a Post investigation that found disconcerting failures in the law’s application in a criminal-justice system in which there is split federal and local authority. The Youth Rehabilitation Act gives judges the discretion to sentence young offenders to a sentence below the mandatory minimums required by law; they can also expunge the records if the youths meet rehabilitation requirements. Post reporters found hundreds of instances in which offenders repaid the leniency they were given by committing crimes of escalating violence upon release. At least 121 defendants sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act since 2010 were later charged with murder.
The hearing was crowded with juvenile-justice advocates and defense attorneys who unwaveringly support the law and — five hours into the eight-hour session — Mr. Allen made clear he had no plans for repeal. No one is really pushing for that. There is validity to treating the impulsive, immature behavior of first-time offenders differently from that of hardened criminals and — as was made clear in the moving testimony of offenders who started new chapters in their lives after having their records sealed — there have been successes under the Youth Rehabilitation Act. Research also suggests that harsher sentencing does not translate into a reduction in crime or recidivism.
However, no other jurisdiction is as liberal as the District in including such a range of violent offenses (including rape) and in giving offenders not just a second chance but a third and even a fourth. It is clear some adjustments are in order. Instead of knee-jerk opposition, there must be a clear-eyed review of what is working and what is not. So it is encouraging that Mr. Allen is insisting on additional research and data analysis.
It was troubling, though, that so little voice was given at the hearing to the people who have become victims of crime because of the failings of the criminal-justice system. In discussing the bungled case of a Youth Rehabilitation Act defendant who later brutally raped a woman, the lament of one council member centered on the assailant. “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,” said David Grosso (I-At Large.) “We need to make sure people are being cared for, and we’re not.”
No doubt Mr. Grosso is right about the inadequacy of rehabilitation services, particularly when there is no control over where offenders are sent in the federal prison system, but victims, as Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Kevin Donahue testified, cannot be viewed just as “casualties in a broader fight for a fairer justice system.”