Earlier this month I looked at an odd aspect of DC law which allows youthful offenders – even in the cases of violent crime – to receive lax sentences because of their age and the hope that they might find redemption and a productive place in society. The “Youth Act” has returned offenders as old as 22 to the streets in record time, but many of them have gone on to commit even more horrific crimes. This week the editorial board at the Washington Post has been forced to take a fresh look at this law and suggest that we might be going too far in sparing the rod and spoiling the child.
Nonetheless, instances of the law giving license to some hardened criminals are startling. At least 121 defendants sentenced under the act went on to be charged with murder since 2010 with 30 of the killings taking place while the suspects were on probation and four occurring while the defendants would have been incarcerated if not given a sentencing break. At least 750 offenders were sentenced multiple times under the act, effectively turning that second chance into a third or fourth chance. Most distressing was the violent nature of some of the crimes — an elderly woman robbed at gunpoint, a gay man beaten in a hate crime, an armed home invasion. Of the 3,188 sentences for felony crimes handed down between 2010 and 2016, 73 percent involved violent crimes or weapons offenses. Murder is the only crime not eligible for youth act sentencing.
The rap sheet for some of these “kids” is beyond dismaying. Beatings, rape, violent assault and even murder have resulted from giving adults above the legal age of adult competency a second chance. The normally liberal WaPo board has been confronted with the numbers and found that just perhaps the people of the district are not being served well under the law.
The D.C. Council needs to revisit the issue of whether breaks should be given and records expunged to those guilty of violent criminal acts. Also worth examining is whether defendants should get multiple chances under the law, whether 22 is the right age cutoff and what can be done to better provide offenders with the support and services they need to turn their lives around.
I’ll be the first to admit that we have some issues with youthful offender laws. If we have situations where children under the age of sixteen have run astray and committed non-violent offenses there is a significant chance that a good family and community support could bring them back into the fold. But with too many of the convicts cited by the Washington Post investigation, younger gang members who were already out of the school system and having substantial records of violent crime are being given a second, third or fourth chance to go forth and continue to victimize the community.
That’s not any sort of “justice” under our system of laws. Leniency is admirable in cases where a moment of youthful indiscretion leads to a conviction. But if some of these older teenagers are already known gang members and have run up rap sheets as long as your arm, it’s time to bring the hammer down. Judges need some level of discretion for marginal cases, but the current laws clearly allow for a bit too much. The District owes a duty to its citizens in terms of keeping them safe, and if the families can’t keep these kids in check, the courts will have to do so.