The D.C. attorney general made the case for a bill that would keep 16- and 17-year-olds from being charged as adults at a hearing before the D.C. Council Thursday.
Karl Racine proposed the Redefinition of Child Amendment Act in July in order to prevent teenagers with a chance for rehabilitation from entering the adult justice system by default.
In D.C., 16- and 17-year-olds charged of murder, first-degree sexual abuse, burglary in the first degree, robbery while armed or assault with intent to commit any of those crimes may be tried as adults.
“Current District law states bluntly that 16- and 17-year-olds who commit certain local crimes are no longer considered children. As a result, they may be treated as adults and prosecuted in adult criminal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, without a judge’s independent assessment of whether this is appropriate or necessary,” Racine said in prepared remarks before the council.
Racine said the bill is necessary to prevent juveniles from entering into the criminal justice system, which would disconnect them from their community and destroy almost any chance of rehabilitation.
“When a child is accused of violating the law, we have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to intervene to reduce the chances that the child reoffends. This is how we make our communities safer — by working to address the underlying causes that led the child to break the law in the first place and reducing the chances they reoffend, rather than driving them deeper into the criminal justice system,” he said. “Charging a young person in adult court has a devastating impact on their life. Adult proceedings are public, which means that the child’s identity and personal details, including history of abuse and trauma, become publicly available.”
According to Racine, the bill still allows judges to decide, if they believe a particular individual would not be rehabilitated by their 21st birthday, to send the case to the adult justice system.
He also argued that because D.C. lacks statehood, 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of federal offenses are sent to federal prisons far away from D.C., disconnecting them from any support system they may have otherwise had they had been allowed to remain in the District.
“I know we can do better. This change to District law will make a big difference in the lives of children and families, while improving public safety and increasing fairness,” Racine argued. “That’s why I introduced this legislation and why I urge you to pass it.”