D.C. Council Plans to Consider Overhauling Juvenile Justice System

by July 7, 2021

Karl Racine

With the backdrop of a published report noting that the overwhelming majority of 16- and 17-year-olds charged as adults in the District are Black, Washington, D.C., Council has moved to take up a proposal by Attorney General Karl Racine to overhaul the way juveniles face justice.

Councilmembers plan to consider legislation that would prohibit prosecutors from charging juveniles as adults without a judge’s permission and offer other forms of rehabilitation than prison.

“Children should be treated like children, including 16- and 17-year-olds, notwithstanding the seriousness of their alleged offense,” Racine told NPR.

The outlet reported that the proposed legislation would apply to teens charged with murder, first-degree sexual abuse, and armed robbery, among other crimes.

“Currently, the lead federal prosecutor in D.C. can file those kinds of cases directly in adult court — without any say from a judge — even if those defendants ultimately plead guilty to lesser charges,” according to NPR.

D.C. has no federal prisons of its own, so young people convicted as adults can spend years in other states at great distances from their families.

The D.C. attorney general told NPR that the majority of underaged defendants charged as adults return home to the District before they are 21, but without the benefit of access to educational programs, vocational training and mentoring they could have received if their cases had been handled in the family courts.

“The adult system doesn’t work that way,” Racine said. “Federal Bureau of Prisons people will tell you the adult system is not made for kids.”

NPR cited the impact a new law would have on Charlie Curtis, a District resident charged with armed robbery and sent to adult court at 16.

Curtis said he had problems reading and writing back then, let alone asking the court to appoint him a lawyer. After his conviction, he spent years in a federal prison in New Jersey.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Curtis told the outlet. “A little scary, a little nervous, you got to grow up real fast. You’re not in the high school gym no more.”

Curtis returned home when he was 22.

The process in D.C. right now, because the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not exercise discretion often in terms of keeping kids down in juvenile court, is more of a sledgehammer,” Eduardo Ferrer, the policy director at the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative, told NPR.

He said the research demonstrates that charging young people in the adult system decreases public safety by making them more likely to break the law in the future.

Most charging decisions in these cases in D.C. are made within a half a day, without the benefit of a more comprehensive review of the facts of the case and the teenager’s background, he said.

“What we really need is a scalpel,” Ferrer determined.

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