A law meant to give lenient sentences to juvenile offenders is putting violent criminals back on the streets of Washington, D.C., at an alarming rate.
The problems stem from the city’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, legislation implemented in the 1980s to provide leniency to criminal offenders under the age of 22, even violent ones, with murder convictions being the only exception. It allows judges to disregard mandatory minimums meant to dissuade criminals, often to disastrous effects. The homicide rate spiked by 54 percent in the District in 2015, and 22 of the murderers were previously sentenced for crimes under the Youth Rehabilitation Act, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.
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A man released on probation in 2015 under the law was involved in the July shooting death of Deeniquia Dodds, a transgender man. Just over 120 people previously sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act have subsequently been convicted of murder since 2010.
“I knew they were going to let me off easy,” Tavon Pinkney, an 18-year old convicted of homicide in 2015, told The Washington Post regarding his previous sentencing under the youth law. “Nothing changed … They just gave me the Youth Act and let me go right back out there. They ain’t really care.”
Pinkney, who is now serving 17 years, was released from prison in 2015 after serving a reduced sentence under the youth act for a robbery charge. Five months later, while on probation, Pinkney murdered Rico Myers during a drug deal in the District. (RELATED: Spiraling Violence Leads DC Citizen To Sue DOJ Over ‘Revolving Door’ For Criminals)
The District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act is unprecedented around the country, with no state laws resembling the legal outs the D.C. law affords young offenders.
“I’ve never heard of something like this,” Anne Teigen, program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Colorado, told The Washington Post. “It is opposite of the trend nationally.”
Forty-five percent of felony cases involving individuals under the age of 22 have been sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act. Laws that give leniency to juveniles exist across the country but focus on non-violent offenses. Fifty-three percent of sentences under the youth law since 2010 were for violent or weapon related offenses.
“Prosecutions, plea deals, sentences rendered, sentences served, and then what happens when folks are being supervised…the community should know that,” Mayor Muriel Bowser told The Washington Post. “We can’t have a safe city if there are no quick and certain punishments for crimes.”
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Denise Krepp from the District’s Ward 6 launched a lawsuit against the Department of Justice in May over the city’s apparent “revolving door” for repeat criminal offenders. Krepp is trying to get statistics on how many arrests in the District resulted in officials following through with prosecutions.
Former D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier shredded the District’s criminal justice system and the “revolving door” for criminal offenders in September, before she retired for a position with the NFL. The D.C. Council rejected crime legislation backed by Bowser and Lanier in the fall of 2015 that would have increased penalties from crimes in the city, particularly crimes committed on or near public transit.
“The criminal justice system in this city is broken,” Lanier said in September. “You can’t police the city if the rest of the justice system is not accountable.”
D.C. is suffering a violent year overall, with 126 homicides across the city. The homicide rate is 16 percent lower than the shocking numbers in 2015, but is still historically high. There were a total of 105 homicides in 2014 and 88 in 2012.