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Lawmakers prepare to give juvenile justice system a huge makeover in D.C.

“They can tell if you care or if you don’t.”

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

The juvenile justice system in the nation’s capital is about to get a dramatic makeover. If an upcoming vote goes as planned, young people will no longer be thrown in solitary confinement, locked up with adults, or confronted with life imprisonment without parole.

Last week, the D.C. Council unanimously voted in favor of sweeping changes to the juvenile system that were introduced by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. His Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act of 2016 includes 17 major changes to court procedures and conditions of confinement, in favor of rehabilitation.

Authorities will no longer be able to detain minors for status offenses, such as running away from home or truancy, and courts will no longer have the option to impose mandatory minimum sentences. Diversion to mediation services will be a top priority in lieu of prosecution. If the court concludes that secure detention is necessary, minors can no longer be locked up in adult facilities or held in solitary confinement.

And in order to ensure access to future opportunities, such as jobs, housing, and schooling, young offenders will also have their records sealed — and, potentially, expunged.

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“What really is important is that we know that whenever a young person commits an offense and walks through the doors of a courthouse in D.C., it’s a turning point in their lives. And how the government responds at that critical moment can help turn their trajectory around,” McDuffie told ThinkProgress.

The council will vote on the bill a second time, after minor revisions. But the proposed reforms are already received overwhelming support from other councilmembers, as well as local stakeholders. Before introducing the bill, McDuffie enlisted youth, policy advocates, and legal experts to weigh in on the current state of the system and how it can be improved.

Anytime we’re dealing with children in the criminal justice system, whether we’re diverting them from the system, we’re sentencing them, or detaining them, we have to recognize the ability to change,” McDuffie said.

For years, youth-involved crime has trended downward in D.C., just like it has in other parts of the country. From 2009 to 2014, the number of youth arrests plummeted by 27 percent, and the number of petitions, or charges brought by the Office of the Attorney General, dropped by 29 percent. Arrests for most serious crimes — homicide, rape, arson, and aggravated assault — have either decreased or remained the same since 1998.

The vast majority of arrests involve no weapons or violence.

Daniel Okonkwo, the executive director of DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY), said the pending reforms will do even more to scale down the current system.

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“The system is shrinking, and that’s a good thing because that is indicative of the fact that we’re finding other ways to treat young people who are involved in crime, or finding ways to engage young people before they get involved in delinquent behavior,” Okonkwo said. But the costs associated with running the existing system — such as staffing and lighting an 88-bed youth detention center — remain a significant problem, he added.

DCLY Legal & Policy Director Eduardo Ferrer, who represents young people in court, agreed that changes incorporated in McDuffie’s bill are a “fantastic” step to overhaul the juvenile system itself, but clarified that there also needs to be early intervention to prevent youth from becoming system-involved in the first place.

“One of the biggest challenges is that most of the young people I represent are in their teen years and adolescence,” he said. “So we are often trying to confront a host of issues they’ve been struggling with — and their families have been struggling with — for years, independent of the juvenile justice system itself: housing issues, poverty, poor schools, lack of adequate education.”

While the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act tackles the treatment and development of minors, the juvenile justice system isn’t equipped to tackle the social and economic challenges that contribute to delinquent activity. “Because they’re in the juvenile justice system, there’s an expectation that all of it is gonna be fixed,” Ferrer added.

And social services are lagging.

“We have an adult problem. We don’t have a youth problem,” Okonkwo said. “We’ve seen caseworkers who haven’t made referrals for treatment on time. We’ve found caseworkers who aren’t responsive, probation offices who aren’t getting services to the kids when they need them.”

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In some cases, caseworkers and service providers are understaffed and under-resourced, Ferrer said. But there’s also an uneven burden placed on youth and their families, who are punished by the system.

“We’re very quick to hold kids and families accountable, but when it’s some type of professional who isn’t doing their job, we find a whole bunch of excuses to make for them,” he explained. “If we focus on just the juvenile justice system, we’re never gonna get ahead of the game. We’re never actually going to drop the underlying causes of what’s holding our kids down and what’s holding our kids back.”

Ferrer and Okonkwo enthusiastically support McDuffie’s bill, including the emphasis on diverting kids away from the criminal justice system, but agree that D.C. youth need easier — and earlier — access to individualized educational opportunities and behavioral health services first.

“What we want for young people in the system is what we want for all our kids,” said Ferrer, who prefers the term “positive youth development” over rehabilitation. “We want to see them become successful, capable, independent adults who make good decisions.”

Passing McDuffie’s bill, and getting stakeholders together in the same room to agree on reform, are giants steps in the right direction.

“Kids aren’t stupid. They can tell if you care or if you don’t,” Okonkwo said.