Reforming the “YRA”: The “Youth Rehabilitation Amendment Act of 2017”
What is the Youth Rehabilitation Act?
Under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act of 1985, or the “YRA”, young adults under the age of 22 convicted of, and sentenced for, a crime are eligible to have their convictions “set aside” if they successfully complete their sentence. They may also be eligible for different sentencing options. This means their conviction won’t be a barrier to future jobs and housing, for example, but can still be used in determining their sentence if they commit another crime or to place them on the sex offender registry, among other uses. Certain offenses are currently ineligible for YRA sentencing and the set aside: murder, first degree murder that constitutes an act of terrorism, and second degree murder that constitutes an act of terrorism. The YRA also requires specific facilities for the treatment and rehabilitation of YRA-sentenced young adults.
Where Are We Today?
The YRA was passed in 1985 when the District’s criminal justice system was very different. Now the federal Bureau of Prisons takes custody of individuals convicted of District felonies, and they’re housed all across the country. The District can’t provide any services for these individuals while they’re in federal prison, and we provide very few services for those young adults in our custody at the D.C. Jail convicted of misdemeanors or pending trial. Unsurprisingly, successful reentry is very difficult and presents public safety challenges.
Last December, following a series of reports by the Washington Post, Councilmember Allen and Mayor Bowser asked the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council – the District agency responsible for bringing our public safety agencies together – to analyze data relating to the YRA, including how the law is applied, the likelihood of those who receive it to reoffend, and what programs are available for this population. Following a spring public hearing on the topic, Councilmember Allen convened a summer working group composed of crime victims, returning citizens, youth advocates, government agencies, and the Mayor’s Office to discuss a variety of potential reforms. The CJCC’s comprehensive analysis is now complete, and the bill is informed by the analysis, the working group’s conversations, and public testimony.
Here are the most important takeaways from the CJCC’s analysis of eligible cases and young adults from 2010-2012:
- A very small slice of criminal cases involve young adults eligible for the YRA, and of that slice, even fewer are sentenced under the YRA. Young adults eligible for the YRA represent a small slice of all criminal cases in the D.C. Superior Court’s Criminal Division – just 7%, or 5,166 cases, representing 3,960 individuals. And of that 7%, only about half of those cases were actually sentenced under the YRA.
- There’s little difference in recidivism rates between similarly-situated young adults sentenced under the YRA and not sentenced under the YRA. The evidence shows recidivism doesn’t improve whether or not the young adult was sentenced under the YRA – it’s the potential of having their conviction set aside later that makes the real difference in public safety outcomes.
- In fact, there’s a strong relationship between a young adult’s conviction being set aside and improved public safety outcomes. Individuals whose convictions were not set aside were nearly 3 times more likely to be convicted in the District of a new offense and more than twice as likely to be convicted of a violent offense or a weapons offense as those whose convictions were set aside.
- It’s very rare that YRA-sentenced young adults are convicted of a later violent offense. Only 3% of YRA-sentenced young adults and 4% of non-YRA sentenced young adults were convicted of a violent offense within 2 years.
- Multiple “bites at the YRA apple” are also extremely rare. Only 4% of those given a YRA sentence, or 104 young adults, received a YRA sentence on more than one occasion. Only 4 individuals received a YRA sentence on three occasions.
How the Bill Reforms the YRA
Makes individuals convicted of the most serious offenses ineligible for the YRA.
Certain violent crimes have a particularly devastating long-term impact on victims, like first degree sexual abuse, and should be completely ineligible. This aligns with how these crimes are treated in the District’s Sentencing Guidelines.
Requires the District to strategically identify gaps and create rehabilitative programming for improved public safety outcomes for victims, young adults, and the community.
The major flaw in the YRA is the lack of developmentally-appropriate treatment and services available for young adults. While we can’t control what’s provided by the Bureau of Prisons, we can ensure that a continuum of treatment and services are available for YRA-sentenced young adults in our care and custody. The bill envisions the creation of a strategic plan by the Mayor to address the educational, workforce development and vocational training, healthcare, housing, family, and reentry needs of this specific population. This includes the creation and expansion of restorative justice and diversion programs and outreach by the District to those in federal custody to plan for reentry. Better services mean better public safety outcomes.
Incentivizes and rewards rehabilitation by moving the decision to set aside a conviction until after sentence completion.
Today, this decision happens when the young adult is sentenced. Unfortunately, judges don’t have crystal balls. Evidence shows we don’t really know why some young adults have been sentenced under the YRA or whether they’ll be successful at having their convictions set aside. We also know many of those young adults who aren’t sentenced under the YRA don’t end up reoffending – and we shouldn’t limit their ability to show they can be successful out of the gate. Moving the decision of whether a conviction should be set aside to after a sentence is completed incentivizes good behavior while in custody and gives the judge more evidence to draw on.
Gives judges specific factors to weigh as guideposts when considering a young adult for YRA sentencing or later having their conviction set aside.
The CJCC analysis reveals it’s hard to predict whether a given young adult has the potential for rehabilitation. The bill lays out several factors like the nature of the offense, statements from the victim, and the young adult’s prior involvement with the criminal justice and child welfare systems to better guide judges in reaching consistent sentencing and set aside decisions.
Modernizes eligibility based on the age of the young adult when the alleged offense was committed.
Currently, it doesn’t matter how old a young adult was when the alleged offense was committed – what matters is the young adult’s age at sentencing. This creates a perverse incentive to rush to plea the day before their 22nd birthday. The bill makes the YRA apply based on the young adult’s age at the time of the offense, rather than the arbitrary date of conviction.
Enhances transparency for victims and convicted young adults by requiring judges to provide written statements explaining their sentencing and set aside decisions.
Currently, judges are required to make a statement on the record during sentencing, but it doesn’t have to be written. Requiring a written statement during both sentencing and the set aside determination will make both the victim and the convicted young adult more aware of the reasons behind the decisions, and could inform future public policy.
Provide grants to help victims of crime and convicted young adults understand and navigate sentencing.
We heard from victims and returning citizens they just don’t know what the YRA does. That’s a big problem, because victims should be informed about their cases, and young adults who were convicted should be incentivized to work toward having their convictions set aside. The bill requires the District to provide grants for sentencing advocates to help crime victims navigate the process and for those convicted to better understand their sentence.
Builds in regular data collection and analysis by District agencies.
Only with regular data collection and analysis can policymakers make decisions informed by evidence and best practices. Enhancing transparency makes it easier to work together to improve public safety.