The Washington, D.C. Council is considering proposals to reform the Youth Rehabilitation Act after a series of investigations conducted by The Washington Post found that the policy failed to prevent young criminals from committing crimes in the future.
The Youth Rehabilitation Act gives convicted criminals younger than 22 the opportunity to have their criminal record erased if they serve their sentence or complete their probation. In some cases, the act is used to grant eligible defendants a shorter sentence, given the crime is not a homicide or a second act of violence committed while armed.
Criminal justice reform advocates argue the intended effect is to give inexperienced offenders the opportunity to turn their life around and have a second chance.
The Washington Post found that at least 750 offenders have been sentenced more than once under the Youth Act in the past decade, and that since 2010, judges have given approximately 2,300 Youth Act sentences to accused individuals with weapon offenses or violent crimes.
Reform efforts have received support from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and the D.C. council. Bowser has asked the council to finish its review of the act by July 2017 and recommend changes to make it more efficient in reforming young offenders and keeping the D.C. community safe.
Implemented in 1985 under former Mayor Marion Barry, the act aims to protect black youths from the stigma attached to lengthy prison sentences. At that time, the District controlled its own prison.
In 1997, the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over responsibility for all long-term offenders in the District in the 1997 Revitalization Act.
The District is still home to the D.C. Jail, a correctional facility that houses pre-trial offenders, sentenced and convicted felons awaiting transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Only male offenders are housed at the D.C. Jail. Female offenders and juveniles being adjudicated as adults are housed at the Correctional Treatment Facility in southeast D.C.
In an interview with The Hoya, Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) said the Youth Act is not as successful as it should be and should be reformed because it can push District residents out of the city.
“Youths are put into prison in a way that is inhumane,” Grosso said. “We then expect them to miraculously be productive, engaged, law-abiding members of society when we put them through that tremendous challenge.”
While The Washington Post focused on the Youth Act as the main stumbling block in keeping District neighborhoods safe from young criminals, Grosso said many councilmembers find fault with the lack of preventative measures that would keep said offenders out of prison in the first place.
“We should be investing in our residents upfront — early in their mental health, early in their physical health — in order for them to be successful, not turning a blind eye to their needs and then wondering why they commit a crime, go up and become worse in jail and then come back and commit more crimes,” Grosso said.
Currently, the Youth Act does not require prisoners to undergo rehabilitation programs before re-entering society.
In an interview with The Hoya, Georgetown’s Prison and Justice Initiative Director Marc Howard, who is also a government and law department professor, echoed Grosso’s issue with the split in local and federal authority and its consequences for young offenders.
“That’s a huge handicap for them, which makes their re-entry really difficult. They’re really far away, they’re completely disconnected, they don’t have lasting ties, plus there’s very little programming and opportunity for rehabilitation inside,” Howard said. “They come back and unfortunately they’re not prepared, they’re not ready to re-enter society successfully and safely and the consequences are really clear.”
Previous Youth Act offenders have accounted for 1 in 5 homicide suspects since 2010, and there have been multiple examples of previous Youth Act offenders going on to commit rape, armed robbery and shootings — according to the Post’s findings.
One case highlighted in The Washington Post’s investigation was that of Youth Act offender Antwon Pitt. While spending two years in Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida for armed robbery, he committed 20 documented sexual offenses, which could have added 10 years to his prison sentence.
However, due to a lack of communication between the prison authority and the D.C. government, he was sent on a bus back to the District the same day he was found guilty of the said sexual assault charges. Two months after returning to D.C., he raped a woman at her home on Oct. 15, 2016, having cut off his GPS bracelet days before.
Pitt was considered to have completed his Youth Act sentence successfully, despite the infractions in prison.
One solution proposed by the D.C. Council includes building a new jail that would keep inmates closer to their support systems, therefore improving their chances of re-entry success after completing a Youth Act sentence.
“I firmly believe that we should bring home all D.C. residents that are in the Bureau Prison System,” Grosso said.
Grosso pointed to initiatives like the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, passed March 2016, which addresses violent crime within the D.C. community by assisting those most likely to commit violent acts with finding a job, suitable housing and treatment for mental and physical health problems.
However, Grosso said this plan has not been funded, which suggests any reforms could face a struggle in receiving city budget funding.
“There is an appetite here in the council to work on these issues and a small appetite in the mayor’s office to work on these issues. It’s just hard to get people to focus on those amongst us who are having the toughest time in life and it frustrates me,” Grosso said. “We’ll see; the Mayor sends down her budget on April 4, and on April 4, we’ll know.”