GUEST BLOG: A Call to Action: Making the Youth Rehabilitation Act Work for All Residents of DC

 

The guest blogger is a resident of Capitol Hill. In 2015, her husband was robbed at gunpoint while walking home from the Stadium-Armory Metro Station, a mile and a half from the U.S. Capitol. Their story was featured in an article in The Washington Post on Dec. 4, 2016: The crimes against them were terrifying, but the judicial system made it worse.

On February 9, 2017, Councilmember Charles Allen, Chairperson of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, will convene a public oversight roundtable to consider “Sentencing in the District of Columbia: Agency Roles and Responsibilities,” to include discussion of the Youth Rehabilitation Act.  The hearing notice with details is here.

By Kristin Van Goor

The recent Washington Post series on repeat violent offenders in D.C. has sparked community interest, intense debate, and grassroots advocacy. One of the central issues explored in the series is the application of a decades-old policy – the Youth Rehabilitation Act (YRA) – in the sentencing of juveniles who have been found guilty of multiple violent crimes in the District. The purpose of the YRA is to provide a second chance to young offenders who have the potential to be productive, law-abiding citizens. Personal experience and the data and analysis stemming from the Post investigative series has led me, and many of my neighbors, to question if the YRA, a 30+-year old policy, is still aligned with the needs, values and expectations of the residents of DC. I believe it is not. I believe that the people of DC should have higher standards for public safety.

As the ANC Commissioners and DC Council debate these issues, I encourage the residents of DC to weigh in. We are at an inflection point. The Post has provided us with months of research and investigation into the YRA and the impact on offenders and victims. The Post has proven that our “second chance” policy has loopholes that allow for third, fourth, and more chances for violent offenders. At a recent community meeting on the YRA, there was some confusion about the focus of the current debate, so I will reiterate: I am advocating for the YRA to be applied only to non-violent offenses and only applied once. I applaud those who received YRA sentencing for non-violent offenses and have turned their lives around.

I believe that leniency in the absence of rehabilitation programs is irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Allowing the YRA to stand in its current form is an example of “feel good” legislation that fails to do good. If we want to give youth offenders a second chance, we have to do so responsibly and put proven, appropriately resourced programs in place to support rehabilitation. We must collect data on how these programs are performing and reevaluate them periodically.

I believe that we need to raise our standards for eligibility for YRA. Before we determine that someone would benefit from YRA and is amenable to rehabilitation, we need standards for evaluating the situation. For example, if someone has forgone public programs and services and rejected opportunities for growth and development (e.g., dropped out of school), we should take a critical eye to the appropriateness of the YRA for that individual. If a person is committing violent offenses, especially with an intent to terrorize (e.g., repeatedly targeting the same victim or neighborhood), I believe they should lose YRA eligibility. Victims deserve a second chance too – the chance to leave a traumatic experience behind and move forward. Unfortunately, my family was victimized twice by the same offenders and our neighborhood was victimized by the same offenders in the week that followed. Only one of the three was caught and he received YRA sentencing.

I believe that violent crime is different and crosses a line to a place that is not appropriate for YRA. The YRA should not apply to violent crimes such as rape and crimes committed with deadly weapons. Denise Krepp, ANC 6B Commissioner, has proposed changes to address this issue, and I support her proposed changes. Murder, rape, and crimes involving guns are not youth delinquency – these are serious crimes that destroy lives and livelihoods. They are crimes that have a profound, lasting impact on their victims and the punishment for these crimes should be aligned with their severity.

I believe that repeat offenders should not benefit from the YRA. Allowing repeat offenders to receive the benefit of reduced sentences puts a target on the back of past and future victims. What is our threshold? At what point do we refuse to be victimized repeatedly? For me, my threshold is the second offense.

I believe that data collected on youth offenses, sentencing and application of the YRA must be accurate. For example, if a crime is committed with a loaded, operational firearm and a person is found guilty of that crime, DC should maintain an accurate record of the crime and the offender. We must have accurate data on crime and how our justice system is functioning. Currently, we have crimes committed with real, loaded guns that are being charged as robbery with an imitation weapon. I believe that the YRA benefit of sealing youth records should be preserved, and I am open to discussion of whether a person who commits a single, non-deadly violent crime should be eligible for YRA sentencing and sealing of his or her youth record. Regardless of how the YRA is applied in this scenario, we should not be building databases of sanitized offenses and alternate versions of reality and using those flawed databases for policy development.

Taken together, the Post has exposed that DC is unusually lenient in its approach to dealing with violent, repeat offenders, that a chasm has developed between the intent of the YRA and its practical application in the 30 years since its enactment, that people in DC who have been victimized feel the justice system has failed them, and that public safety has been compromised by flawed polices. The DC Council has committed to taking up these issues in 2017 and we have strong community leaders, such as Denise Krepp, advocating for policy changes that align with the values and needs of DC residents. I encourage my fellow DC residents to consider these issues and make your views heard so that reforms to the YRA can be done in a manner that is thoughtful, deliberate, and reflects the consensus of the community.

 

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