Home News Center D.C. Member Teams with National Partner to Keep District Youth Out of the Adult System

D.C. Member Teams with National Partner to Keep District Youth Out of the Adult System

June 9, 2014
Zoe Schein

Last week, Washington, D.C. City Council members Jim Graham and Tommy Wells co-introduced the  Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 2014 (YOARA), a bill that would significantly reform the District’s policies on housing young people in adult confinement facilities and restrict the court’s ability to charge young people as adults.

While the bill was just introduced last week, DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY), an NJJN member, and the Campaign for Youth Justice, an NJJN partner, have been hard at work for months on a campaign to draft and support the bill. The “Judge Our Youth, Restoring Balance to D.C. Youth Justice,” campaign focuses on three key elements of reform, all of which are included in YOARA:

  1. Move all pre-trial status youth who are charged as adults and held in adult facilities to an age-appropriate facility.
  2. End “once an adult, always an adult,” a practice by which youth who have been charged as adults for any offense must be charged as adults for all subsequent offenses.
  3. Institute a system of "reverse waiver," whereby defense counsel for youth charged as adults may ask for a hearing to challenge the charging decision. During such hearings, a judge would review the charging decision and be required to take a number of specific criteria into account to determine whether an adult charge is appropriate.

The bill already has significant support: beyond Graham and Wells, six other D.C. council members have signed on as co-sponsors of YOARA.

While the “Judge Our Youth” campaign began fairly recently, the issue of adultification of District youth has long been a target for reform for DCLY.

“We’ve been working with the Department of Corrections and City Council, as well as with the Campaign for Youth Justice, to examine the juvenile unit at the D.C. adult jail for years,” said Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of DCLY.

“We tried to introduce a similar measure in 2009: the Juvenile Justice Improvement Act. But it never really got any traction.”

However, when an outside consulting group came out with a report on the conditions in the D.C. jail’s juvenile unit, DCLY jumped to leverage the report’s conclusions into a campaign for reform.
“To paraphrase the group’s findings, the facilities are inadequate for the population they’re trying to serve,” said Okonkwo. “As a result of that report, we were able to bring councilmembers Graham and Wells into the juvenile unit, and based on what they saw there, they became interested in doing something to affect the population of young people who are there.”

Advocates strive to keep young people out of adult court and adult confinement facilities, in part because adult confinement carries a vastly increased risk of abuse, sexual assault, and suicide for young people. Furthermore, most adult facilities—including D.C.’s jail—are not equipped to provide youth with developmentally appropriate educational, behavioral, and vocational services. In the D.C. jail, young people are even denied in-person visits—all visits, including family, are conducted over video.

“This is a unit where the majority of young people are pre-trial, so they haven’t been convicted of anything. They’re simply awaiting their day in court. So you have a highly restrictive, dangerous environment, where we’re housing young people who, in the eyes of the law, are still innocent,” Okonkwo said.

The conditions of the juvenile unit are documented in DCLY and CFYJ’s joint publication, “Capital City Correction: Reforming D.C.’s Use of Adult Incarceration Against Youth,” a comprehensive report that documents the inadequate conditions of the juvenile unit, reviews research on the effects of adult incarceration on adolescent brain development, and recommends policy changes to improve the D.C. courts’ handling of cases involving youth.

DCLY hopes that the city council will vote on YOARA before the council session ends this December.

» Read the full text of the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 2014.
» Download "Capital City Correction: Reforming D.C.'s Use of Adult Incarceration Against Youth."

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