Councilmember Allen Introduces Bill Reforming Youth Rehabilitation Act

Councilmember Allen Introduces Bill Reforming
Youth Rehabilitation Act

Today, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, introduced comprehensive legislation to reform the Youth Rehabilitation Act (the “YRA”), a law passed in 1985 to provide a second chance to young adults convicted of eligible crimes.

“Once we really sifted through the data, it became clear that YRA is applied inconsistently and isn’t predictive of who, from a public safety standpoint, would make the best use of a second chance at a clean record,” said Councilmember Allen. “The YRA is a promise that hasn’t been delivered. This bill adds the substance young adults, victims of crime, and District residents need to improve public safety, lower recidivism, and set young people convicted under the law up for success. These young people are coming back to our communities whether or not judges sentence them under the YRA, so the question is really whether we’re prepared to invest in what we know works.”

Currently under the YRA, judges determine whether a young adult between the ages of 16 and 22 should receive a shorter sentence and the opportunity to have their conviction “set aside” if they complete their sentence successfully. The “set aside” clears a person’s record when applying for jobs or housing. It is a critical part in helping young people steer clear of re-offending.

The evidence shows if a young adult isn’t successful in getting their conviction set aside, they’re almost three times more likely to be convicted of a new offense in the District within two years as someone whose conviction was set aside. Young adults sentenced under the YRA are also supposed to receive special treatment and services tailored to their needs, but those are few and far between.

A Washington Post series last year focused on the act and spurred discussion about potential reforms. The bill was crafted based on public input during an eight-hour spring public hearing, an eight-month study and final report by the District’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and multiple meetings of a summer working group consisting of crime victims, returning citizens, youth advocates, government agencies, and the Mayor’s Office.

“The YRA became law as mass incarceration was becoming the national policing policy. It was ahead of its time in understanding the relationship between human development and public safety and how damaging years of incarceration are on a person, as well as entire communities. But the YRA never gave judges enough information in making their decision nor young people the supports they needed to rehabilitate and not reoffend. This bill addresses those shortcomings in several ways,” Councilmember Allen said.

Here are some of the key changes the Youth Rehabilitation Amendment Act of 2017 would make to current law. For a longer summary of the bill, click here.

  • Shift when a judge decides to “set aside” a conviction until the end of a sentence, rather than at the start. Judges don’t have crystal balls. Now, they will have the benefit of how a convicted young person used their time in corrections, including their participation in rehabilitative programming, when deciding to apply a set aside.
  • Expand the list of offenses for which convicted individuals cannot receive the YRA to include certain serious crimes with long-lasting impacts on victims, such as first-degree sexual assault.
  • Require the Mayor to create a continuum of programming for young adults from before they enter the criminal justice system through reentry. Lack of specific services for this population is a significant barrier to rehabilitation and lower rates of recidivism.
  • Lay out specific factors, such as the nature of the offense, the young adult’s criminal history, and victims’ statements, judges must consider first at sentencing and then again at the completion of a sentence when deciding to set aside a conviction. The law also requires written statements from judges describing their decisions.
  • Creates more transparency for victims and young adults through grants for sentencing advocates to ensure victims are better informed about their cases and to incentivize good behavior from young adults to set aside their convictions.
  • Builds in regular data collection and analysis so policymakers know what works and what doesn’t.

“I understand why District residents are speaking out on this issue,” Councilmember Allen said. “It’s personal. Many residents have been victims of crime. So what does the evidence tell us about how to make sure more people aren’t victimized? Start crime prevention work early. Stay in contact with incarcerated young people shipped off to federal prison hundreds of miles away. Plan for reentry before they come home. And eliminate the lifelong obstacle of a criminal history for those who rehabilitate.”

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