The violent crime rate in the District of Columbia is a subject which doesn’t receive as much attention as some other spots like Chicago and Baltimore, but it’s just as serious in many ways. The local news section of the Washington Post has an excellent multi-part series which is delving into the numbers and complicating factors that are plaguing the area. In the installment I’m reading today they examine the history of a law known as the “Youth Act” which seems to be doing more harm than good. Originally designed to give judges more leeway in the sentencing of young offenders, offering a chance at rehabilitation rather than a life behind bars, it seems to be resulting in a revolving door of younger criminals who graduate from minor offenses to everything up to and including murder.
Hundreds of criminals sentenced by D.C. judges under an obscure local law crafted to give second chances to young adult offenders have gone on to rob, rape or kill residents of the nation’s capital.
The original intent of the law was to rehabilitate inexperienced criminals under the age of 22. The District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act allows for shorter sentences for some crimes and an opportunity for offenders to emerge with no criminal record. But a Washington Post investigation has found a pattern of violent offenders returning rapidly to the streets and committing more crimes. Hundreds have been sentenced under the act multiple times.
In dozens of cases, D.C. judges were able to hand down Youth Act sentences shorter than those called for under mandatory minimum laws designed to deter armed robberies and other violent crimes. The criminals have often repaid that leniency by escalating their crimes of violence upon release.
This “Youth Act” as it’s known has produced some dramatic results to be sure, but not in a good way. There’s a laundry list of examples, charts and graphs in that article which are worth your time to look at but the stories are uniformly depressing. They’ve identified at least 121 violent offenders who were basically given a slap on the wrist under this law and then went on to be charged with murder. The number charged with rape and other assaults is even larger.
One provision of the law allows judges to overlook mandatory minimum sentences for violent gun crimes. This has led to a number of those given early release dates going on to shoot somebody again. For a city which works so studiously to restrict the Second Amendment rights of the law abiding they certainly don’t seem to be interested in doing some actual gun control when they find a violent felon with an illegal weapon. The original intent of the law may have been noble enough, but it seems like it’s being misapplied.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with the Youth Act is how it defines “youth” for the purposes of criminal trials. This covers defendants up to the age of 22! The article includes the story of a pair of 20 year old fraternal twins who very nearly beat an LGBT victim to death while shouting gay slurs at them. They wound up getting a one year sentence under the Youth Act and both were back in trouble with the law before very long. These aren’t kids we’re talking about here. I was originally picturing a program which might work to steer fourteen year olds back onto the straight and narrow path, but by the time they’re in their twenties it seems like that ship has pretty much sailed.
Building even more jails and filling them up is an unpopular idea in liberal circles, but does anyone have a better suggestion than this blanket leniency for violent felons in their late teens and early twenties? They need to think of something soon because this simply isn’t working.