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Opinion Youth rehabilitation in D.C.: From controversy to progress

Kimberly Potter-Cooper recalls being mugged at gunpoint in this alley adjacent to where she worked at the Center City Public Charter school in Southeast Washington.
Kimberly Potter-Cooper recalls being mugged at gunpoint in this alley adjacent to where she worked at the Center City Public Charter school in Southeast Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He previously served as general counsel, chief of staff and interim director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

Two years ago, The Post published the front-page series “Second Chance City” blaming the Youth Rehabilitation Act, a District law that applied to young adults under 22 years old for a number of violent crimes.

On Dec. 13, the newly amended and stronger YRA, passed unanimously by the D.C. Council, went into effect. To improve public safety, the District will be developing a new plan for this critical population, but officials haven’t waited to begin more effectively responding to justice-involved young adults.

Almost a year ago, the District’s Department of Corrections implemented a specially designed unit for young adults 18 to 24 modeled after a program in Connecticut. The “Young Men Emerging” Unit creates a therapeutic and rehabilitative environment, which, research shows, makes it more likely that participants will do better in the future.

The Young Men Emerging Unit is off to a strong start, with caring staff partnering with extremely talented and committed mentors. These mentors are older individuals serving life sentences who live on the unit and provide guidance, showing the young people how to choose a different path than they had.

And the District is one of six jurisdictions in a national learning community of practitioners and researchers selected for innovative approaches to working with justice-involved young adults. The District is moving toward becoming a national leader in the movement to create safer and more effective approaches for this population.

The reaction to The Post’s series was unusual. There was no knee-jerk, get-tough policy response of the type that often follows high-profile news coverage of violent crime. District leaders instead engaged in a thoughtful process; as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Attorney General Karl A. Racine resisted calls to weaken or repeal the YRA.

City leaders called for a careful examination of the issues to inform the best course of action. They commissioned research to answer questions raised by the series, including lack of access to specialized rehabilitation services despite the law’s intent. As Allen, chair of the Council’s Judiciary Committee, rightly noted, there was no “R” in the YRA.

The District’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s analysis informed the policy discussion and confirmed some of the concerns raised by advocates and criminologists about a number of The Post’s assertions. A key finding was a correlation between young adults who completed their sentences under the act having their convictions sealed and a significant reduction in reoffending. This demonstrated that the philosophical underpinnings of the act are sound; not having a felony conviction on one’s record makes it more likely that someone will desist from future crime. This finding was contrary to the picture painted by the series.

Allen convened stakeholder meetings to consider the best way to proceed, resulting in a proposal to build on the strengths of the act while also addressing any deficiencies. Amendments included slightly limiting the types of offenses eligible for the act and moving the court’s decision whether to seal a conviction under the act from the original sentencing hearing to when the sentence is completed.

The act also requires the mayor’s office to develop a plan to provide a robust continuum of developmentally appropriate services for young adults, i.e., to actually fulfill the “R” part of the Youth Rehabilitation Act. And consistent with the best research in the field, including science showing brains aren’t usually fully formed until one’s mid-20s, the council raised the age of eligibility for a YRA sentence from 22 to 25.

While there is still much work to be done to implement the services, supports and opportunities that will most effectively respond to the needs of our justice-involved young adults — especially providing prevention or intervention services in the community — the District is off to a good start. Our leaders should be commended for resisting pressure to look tough on crime, and instead taking a responsible, serious and research-informed approach. Violent crime in the District was down in 2018, but there was a concerning increase in homicides. Therefore, it is all the more urgent that the District invest in smart-on-crime strategies. It is this approach, including the hard work of responding to the needs of some of our most challenging young people, that will be most effective in creating the safe communities we all want for our city.

Read more:

The Post’s View: D.C. moves toward a safer strategy for youth rehabilitation

The Post View: The danger of too many chances in D.C.’s criminal-justice system

Eddie Ellis: I am a success stories from D.C.’s second-chance law for young offenders

Colbert I. King: A major public safety threat in D.C. gets the silent treatment