WASHINGTON — Legislation called cutting edge by national experts on juvenile justice reform has been unanimously passed by the Council of the District of Columbia.
“We looked at best practices from across the country and really pulled together what we think is going to transform our juvenile justice system,” said Democratic councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who sponsored the bill along with seven other councilmembers. “More importantly, it’s going to modernize the juvenile justice system to hold young people accountable for their actions, but it’s also going to give them an opportunity for rehabilitation.”
The Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act of 2016 now goes to Mayor Muriel Bowser and then Congress for consideration, respectively. If Congress does nothing within 60 days, it will automatically become law. The mayor is expected to sign the bill, said Nicole Chapple, assistant director for external affairs of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
The bill bars detaining juveniles for status offenses (such as running away or underage drinking), putting juveniles in adult facilities and putting unsupervised children into detention facilities before fact-finding or dispositional hearings. Legal custody of a child younger than age 10 could not be transferred from parents or guardians to the government. Minors will no longer be placed in solitary confinement unless it’s to protect their safety or that of others, or for disrupting a formal investigation.
The bill would also give juveniles charged as adults the opportunity for release after 20 years and limits the restraints allowed for young women who are pregnant.
“I think it is a fantastic codification of the science around adolescent brain development,” said Daniel Okonkwo, the executive director of DC Lawyers for Youth. “It recognizes that children are children and have this incredible capacity to change, and that it recognizes that we can do some things for young people who are already in the system that set them up to succeed when they transition out of it.”
DC Lawyers for Youth have been working with McDuffie on juvenile justice reform issues since he became chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary. The group plus 27 other advocacy organizations testified in support of the legislation.
Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, praised McDuffie as a strong leader in juvenile justice reform. “I think he is a champion on these issues,” he said.
The legislation is part of a national trend in state systems, said Sarah Bryer, the executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. In the past year, several states including California, Louisiana and Delaware have undertaken juvenile justice reform legislation. Numerous states passed multiple bills addressing individual issues, but the District’s is one of the widest reaching of any single bill.
“From a national perspective, D.C. is a great example of a really good trend of what we’ve been seeing around the country in terms of state legislatures recognizing that if we want to have good public safety and we want to have good outcomes for kids, we have to take some of these measures to make sure that we are treating them right, that we are holding them accountable in our communities and we are treating them humanely in all parts throughout the system,” Bryer said.
Schindler lauded the bill for limiting the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. “It puts D.C. as part of a larger trend nationally and hopefully part of a movement to end solitary confinement for a lot of young people,” he said. “This is part of a larger movement that includes the president speaking out this past year banning the use of solitary for young people in federal facilities.”
Jenny Lutz, the staff attorney and campaign manager for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, said the bill was on the cutting edge of juvenile justice because it prohibits the use of solitary confinement for punishment, limits the amount of time it can be used for safety measures and increases accountability and data collection through required reporting when solitary is used. Forty percent of incarcerated juveniles experience solitary confinement, according to federal data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, she said.
“It’s great that it involves … consulting with mental health professionals,” Lutz said. “What we’ve seen in many jurisdictions is that involving mental health staff is one of the key components to reducing room confinement, because it targets a lot of the reasons kids are in room confinement to begin with … I think it’s fair to say it will be hundreds of young people that will be impacted by reforming the practices in D.C.”
McDuffie said the next step is finding budget funding for the policies and procedures the bill would put in place if approved by the mayor and Congress, but he is confident.
And he plans to keep working with advocates and stakeholders to improve other areas of the juvenile justice system. “While this [bill] is a very important measure, it is by no means exhaustive. There are things that are going to be improved drastically once it’s implemented … but I’m a firm believer that there is always room for progress.”