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Juvenile Justice Reform Becomes Law in D.C.

Second of a Two-Part Series

In the first part of this series (“Gun Sales in America Surging Among Blacks,” March 23-29), The Informer examined a recent surge among Blacks nationwide in gun club memberships as well as a significant increase in gun purchases, also among Blacks, reaching out to experts (Council member Kenyan McDuffie and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine) in the District to help us understand these two unprecedented developments.

Both men also shared candid views on the recent spike in gun violence and homicides in parts of the District, including Ward 5 which McDuffie represents.

Now, we turn to landmark comprehensive juvenile justice reform, sponsored by Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie, that just days ago became law. Several of its more significant provisions include: ending the use of solitary confinement on children; restoring judicial discretion for sentencing juveniles; and ensuring children age-appropriate confinement.

McDuffie, who first presented the “Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act” in 2016 while serving as the chairperson of the Committee on the Judiciary, said the new legislation will go a long way in keeping youth from becoming needlessly entangled in the juvenile justice system.

“This law makes D.C. safer by changing our juvenile justice system to one that, while still holding young people accountable, also offers an opportunity for rehabilitation,” he said. “This law also makes the dollars we spend on public safety more efficient by not wasting them on policies that do nothing to make our communities safer.”

The law, unanimously passed by the full council last fall, became law this month as the congressional review period passed without additional comment or objection from Congress.

And it appears to have some real “teeth” — something which McDuffie says he has long desired in his relentless goal to help youth who may have gotten into trouble find ways to redemption that will not “scar them for life.”

LAW’S PROVISIONS ANTITHESIS OF U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL’S VIEWS

The newly-enacted law will expand voluntary victim-offender mediation; restore judicial discretion when sentencing juveniles; follow Supreme Court precedent by eliminating juvenile life without parole sentences; protect children under 10 from being held at juvenile facilities with teenagers; prohibit the detention of status offenders; move all detained children out of adult facilities; limit the use of solitary confinement on children; better engage the families of detained children; improve the oversight and evaluation of diversion and rehabilitation programs; and require an analysis of the underlying causes of juvenile delinquency.

However, a growing number of leaders at the federal level, all part of the Trump Administration, have spoken more about punishment than rehabilitation.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he wants laws to get tougher — perhaps in a harkening back to the ’80s and its [alleged] “War on Drugs.”

“America must put bad men behind bars again,” Sessions said in a speech to the state attorney generals, given on the last day of this year’s Black History Month.

He added that his “law and order crackdown” may include marijuana.

There are nearly 1.6 million Americans in state or federal prison. According to the 2014 Census data, more young Black high school dropouts are in prison than with jobs.

Sessions, in comments made last year, claimed “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

He now says, “We’re seeing real violence around that [marijuana] and experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”

But not everyone’s willing to either take Sessions at his word or accept his views.

New York Times bestselling author Michelle Alexander suggests that perspectives like those touted by Sessions can be reduced to nothing more than rhetoric aimed at bolstering “mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.”

“The war on drugs? Is it a genuine public health crusade or an attempt to carry out the ‘New Jim Crow?’ asks Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow” before answering the question herself, pointing to new methods where Jim Crow tenets remain in play albeit under different packaging.

Racine said he applauds the efforts of McDuffie and continues to offer his assistance from the District’s Office of the Attorney General.

“Many youth offenses are nonviolent and don’t involve a weapon. However, those youths still often go to the criminal justice system,” Racine noted. “That’s why our office has employed diversionary programs with services based on the needs of youth.

“In the past two years, we have diverted 1,000 kids,” he said. “Eighty percent have not been rearrested. That’s an example of forward looking policy in which we’ve invested here in the District that has actually led to a reduction in crime,” Racine said.

McDuffie agreed, adding that locking up youth should not be the first nor only option.

“Putting kids in solitary confinement achieves nothing to keep D.C. residents safe and, in fact, it makes us less safe by traumatizing the same kids who will likely at some point return to our community,” he said. “Mandatory minimums make politicians sound tough, but they make our city less safe. Instead of investing a comparatively modest amount of money in rehabilitation, mandatory minimum sentences put D.C. taxpayers on the hook for costly prison sentences and undermine judicial discretion.”

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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