By a vote of 13-0, the DC Council passed comprehensive legislation to reform the Youth Rehabilitation Act (the “YRA”), a law passed in 1985 to provide a second chance to young adults convicted of eligible crimes to move forward without the burden of a criminal record.
The YRA was groundbreaking when it was passed, recognizing the link between repeat offenders and the lifelong barriers a criminal record presents. But over the years the statute has suffered from legislative, operational, and oversight neglects.
“The YRA became law as mass incarceration was becoming the national policing policy. It was ahead of its time in understanding the relationship between human development and public safety, and how debilitating a criminal record is on a person’s future. Those effects have harmed entire communities. But the YRA never gave judges enough information in making their decision nor young people the supports they needed to rehabilitate and not reoffend. This bill addresses those shortcomings,” Councilmember Charles Allen said, the bill’s author and Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. “That being said, the YRA has provided a lifeline to young adults convicted of misdemeanors and felonies who could very well turn their lives around, particularly because of the opportunity to have their convictions set aside.”
Under current law: Judges determine at the time of sentencing whether a young adult ages 18-22 should receive the opportunity to have their conviction “set aside” or sealed if they complete their sentence successfully. The set aside seals a person’s criminal record when applying for jobs, loans, or housing. It is a critical part in helping young people steer clear of re-offending.
Under Councilmember Allen’s bill: Judges would not award a set aside until after the end of a young person’s sentence. The bill lays out specific guidelines a judge must consider when weighing a set aside, including behavior during the sentence, the nature of the offense, victim’s statements, a young person’s criminal history, and more.
The evidence shows if a young adult isn’t successful in getting their conviction set aside, they’re almost three times more likely to be convicted of a new offense in the District within two years as someone whose conviction was set aside. Young adults sentenced under the YRA are also supposed to receive services tailored to their needs, but those are few and far between. This bill requires the Mayor to create a continuum of programing for young adults from before they enter the criminal justice system through reentry.
“Once we sifted through the data, it became clear the YRA is applied inconsistently and isn’t predictive of who, from a public safety standpoint, would make the best use of a second chance at a clean record,” said Councilmember Allen. “The YRA is a promise that hasn’t been delivered. This bill adds the substance young adults, victims of crime, and District residents need to improve public safety, lower recidivism, and set young people convicted under the law up for success. These young people are coming back to our communities whether or not judges sentence them under the YRA, so the question is really whether we’re prepared to invest in what we know works.”
The bill also ensures there is greater transparency for victims of crimes. In addition to a judge weighing victim statements, the bill also mandates funding to ensure victims are aware of an upcoming set aside hearing.
A Washington Post series in early 2017 focused on the act and spurred discussion about potential reforms. A four-hour public hearing on the issue was held on Oct., 26, 2017 and prior to introduction the bill was crafted based on public input during an eight-hour public roundtable, an eight-month study and final report by the District’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and multiple meetings of a summer working group consisting of crime victims, returning citizens, youth advocates, government agencies, and the Mayor’s Office. The bill passed 5-0 in the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and 13-0 in its first vote before the Council.