D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), D.C. Public Defender Service general counsel Laura Hankins, and anti-violence activist Ronald Moten spoke on the Youth Rehabilitation Act (YRA), which came under fire after a newspaper series highlighted significant failings of the law. The Feb. 18 meeting of the Ward 8 Democrats, at the R.I.S.E. Center, was the host of this discussion. Charles Wilson, president of the Ward 8 Democrats, noted the significance of Black History Month and the large number of Black youth in the ward. Forty-two people attended the panel discussion.

Ronald Moten, an anti- gang violence activist and writer, speaks about the progress of the Youth Rehabilitation Act in keeping young people from being trapped in the criminal justice system. (Courtesy Photo)

According  to the Department of Planning and Economic Development, Ward 8 has the largest number of residents in the city in the between birth and age 19.

In 1985, the D.C. Council enacted the YRA to “separate youth offenders from more mature, experienced offenders” and to provide an “opportunity for a deserving youth offender to start anew through expungement of his criminal record.” The law applies to all crimes except for murder and convictions for a second crime of violence while armed.

One of the major benefits of YRA treatment is that it “clears” or “sets aside” the conviction from the criminal record of the person who was sentenced. However, because the records are not “obliterated” but remain available to law enforcement personnel and court officials for “legitimate purposes,” a set-aside is not the same thing as an expungement.

The Washington Post published a series in 2016 that questioned the value of the YRA and its effectiveness given the number of defendants helped by the YRA that continued to commit crimes. Allen, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, received a lot of feedback as a result of the series.

Allen said there was a great deal of discussion among his council colleagues after the series appeared. He said many council members wanted to sponsor legislation to fix the parts of the YRA the Washington Post criticized but he urged caution. “We have to update the YRA, there’s no question about that,” the council member said. “I told them not to introduce legislation but let’s go through a process. Let’s find out what is wrong with the YRA and let’s verify it in a way that is data-driven.”

Moten takes issue with the premise of the series and said the YRA is a good law. He was a beneficiary of the YRA and managed to connect with an organization – Cease Fire . . . Don’t Smoke the Brothers – that helped turn his life around.

Moten said only 3 percent of the YRA beneficiaries re-offend and if the law is changed in a way that harms youth offenders, “we will go back to mass incarcerations.” Moten said the District government should spend more money on its youth. “People will commit criminal acts if they can’t feed their families. I hear stories of boys and girls being raped and people using their food stamps to buy drugs. There is a lot of anxiety in D.C. and we don’t want to end up like Chicago.”

Hankins said when a young person gets into the criminal justice it is usually the U.S. Attorney’s Office that “gets first crack at them.” He said the U.S. Attorneys’ Office determines what the charge is and “they have the power to charge you as an adult at 16 or 17.”

Allen said the discussion on YRA opens up a broader concern with the District’s criminal justice system.”The city hasn’t updated its criminal code since 1901,” he said, which was a surprise to many in the audience. Allen, citing the major role he will have in correcting the YRA’s deficiencies, expects and wants strong community input.

“I really think the problem is the judges,” Nydria Humphreys, a resident of D.C., told the AFRO. “I don’t think they should be responsible for offender. I think there should be an oversight committee that consists of people from CSOSA and some volunteer groups who act like jurors. Judges should be thinking about rehabilitation, not punishment and helping ex-offenders.”