- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2013

A new national report shows almost half of the states are taking tangible steps to reform their youth criminal justice systems.

The District is not among them.

In the past eight years, some 40 pieces of legislation in 23 states have been passed to remove juveniles charged with crimes from the adult criminal justice system, where there is little chance of turning their lives around, according to a report by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Eleven states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have passed laws to prevent juveniles from being placed in adult prisons.

Twelve states, including Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, have passed laws to prevent prosecutors from charging youths in adult court, or to allow a judge to order that such cases be refiled in juvenile court.

Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi and Massachusetts have expanded juvenile court jurisdiction so that older youth — those ages 17 and 18 — are no longer tried and sentenced in adult court.

“It’s very hard to compare states,” said Carmen Daugherty, the campaign’s policy director who authored the report. “Only 13 states report their data on a national basis, and there’s so many different ways for youth to enter the adult system.”

In the District, however, where youth recidivism is declining but roughly 75 percent of youths charged with crimes are prosecuted in federal court, there is no mechanism for a judge to review the case and possibly direct it to the juvenile court system, Ms. Daugherty said.

The District is the only jurisdiction where federal prosecutors bring those charges, and the law states that youths 16 or older can be tried as adults for murder, armed robbery and certain other violent crimes.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the District said the office works with the Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. attorney general’s office in making that determination. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, the spokesman said, taking into account the severity of the offense, whether a firearm was used and the juvenile’s criminal history.

But rarely does that determination result in a child 16 or older being tried for a violent crime in juvenile court, Ms. Daugherty said. The result is that those youth are detained before trial in an adult prison, where they are subject to lockdowns and solitary confinement as if they were adults, she said.

Once sentenced, they remain in such facilities until the federal Bureau of Prisons can place them in a juvenile detention facility, usually in another state.

“They don’t have access to their families,” Ms. Daugherty said, “and we can’t tell if they receive any education in those facilities. It’s heartbreaking.”

In Virginia, legislation was passed in the past couple of years to prevent youths from being detained in an adult prison before trial, which she characterized as a “huge victory.”

In Maryland, an active campaign to reform the system has resulted in a task force to study the problem, she said.

Not so in the District.

Youth advocates say a change in the law is needed to reduce the number of youths who can be tried as adults and to install judicial safeguards so that someone other than a prosecutor can make the charging decision.

“The Supreme Court has said that youth are in a fundamentally different class, but at the local level we don’t treat them that way,” said R. Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth. “How often do prosecutors send juveniles [who by law can be tried as adults] back to juvenile court? If there is no discretion being exercised by prosecutors, at least let a judge decide.”

Mr. Okonkwo said the system in the District suffers not from complacency but from indifference. In 2009, the Juvenile Justice Improvement Act died from “lack of political will,” he said.

“Our politicians seem to think that this issue won’t resonate with people in D.C. There’s no movement on the D.C. Council to fall in line with other jurisdictions to make sure our young people can take advantage of what the juvenile system offers in terms of rehabilitation,” he said. “We know there’s no rehabilitation at the adult level.”