Editorial: The Shameful Washington Post Series on the Youth Rehabilitation Act
by Larry Janezich
This past month, The Washington Post published one of the worst series of local “investigatory” journalism this city has seen in a long time. They should be embarrassed, and any city official anxious to respond to residents’ concerns about violent crime who sees the series as a basis for revamping the Youth Rehabilitation Act (YRA) should think twice.
It may be that the YRA needs to be reformed, but if so, that reform needs to be based on factual demonstration of its shortcomings, not on anecdotal evidence, especially when those anecdotes suggest responsibility for serious mistakes lies elsewhere.
The Post series questions the “second chance” provisions of DC’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, which offers shorter sentences to young people convicted of certain crimes, as well as the opportunity to expunge the record of the crime if conditions set by a presiding judge for time served and post-release are met.
The main and most explosive claim made by the reporters is that some young people convicted of an offense and sentenced under the YRA go on to commit murder after they are released, implicitly suggesting—while offering no proof —that these murders could have been prevented by harsher sentencing.
However, the Post fails to take into account the overwhelming evidence that recidivist rates are not related to the length of a prison sentence. Research consistently finds that the certainty of punishment, rather than severity, has deterrent effects. (A link to an overview of research in this field is here: http://bit.ly/2hU5DO4) In fact, harsh sentencing could have the opposite of the intended effect by increasing recidivism rates, producing only more and better criminals as a result.
The dangerous assumption underlying the Post’s YRA series is that if lenient sentencing is not 100% successful, that is reason enough to reject it, yet, at the same time, harsher sentencing need not prove itself effective at all. Subjecting different approaches to this uneven standard of evidence has led to more than four decades of mass incarceration. An array of voices, including many conservatives, have recently challenged the policies of mass incarceration, and they have done so mainly by having the courage and decency to insist on evidence.
But evidence is in short supply in The Washington Post series, in part because the criminal justice system in DC operates without any reasonable standard of transparency, and in part because the Post reporters did not seem interested in context or comparisons. Remarkably, despite its central thesis targeting the YRA, the Post series provides information that suggests that the Rehabilitation Act operates well. We learn that since 2010, there have been 121 young people sentenced under the Rehabilitation Act who went on to commit murder at a future date. This represents the loss of 121 people who should be with us today and 121 families and neighborhoods that are scarred by this loss. We also learn that 3,188 sentences for felony crimes were handed down under the YRA in the same time period (3.8% of these went on to commit murder). We never learn how many or what kind of violent crimes other than homicide have been committed by former Youth Act participants. Nor does the Post provide violent crime recidivism rates – including murder – for youth offenders sentenced under regular (non-YRA) court procedures. If those recidivism rates are higher than 3.8%, then maybe a series reporting the comparative success of the Rehabilitation Act would be in order.
In fact, a close reading of the series finds little to specifically indict the YRA. Instead, the Post reveals lapses in judicial and prosecutorial decision-making, lax procedures of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), and a lack of communication among the city’s law enforcement agencies—all of which endanger the public.
Among these recurring failures, the picture that emerges of the independent federal agency CSOSA is the most distressing. It can take two months for the CSOSA bureaucracy to get a warrant issued for the arrest of an offender under their watch who has disappeared from their system. CSOSA Director Nancy M. Ware told the Post, “With our population, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt.” CSOSA is not accountable to the Mayor or the City Council; while serving the District, the agency does not have to answer to any part of it. This is untenable. CSOSA should answer to the people of the District of Columbia immediately and on an ongoing basis, and the same goes for judges and the US Attorney’s office. (Washington DC is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office – the largest of the nation’s 92 US Attorney Offices – prosecutes federal crimes and all serious crimes in the city). The Washington Post reporters may think they published a series critical of the YRA, but all they really did was underscore the dysfunction inherent in DC’s lack of political sovereignty.
A natural response to the series is to do something dramatic, but right now DC controls none of the levers most at fault for the lapses described by the Post. Only the Youth Rehabilitation Act falls under its direct control. Predictably, calls for action focus on the YRA, though there is no persuasive proof that the YRA has failed. One proposal asks that no one be allowed to benefit from the Youth Rehabilitation Act twice either by receiving a suspended sentence or having a conviction set aside. Yet we have no idea how many times this has backfired within the small set of repeat YRA beneficiaries. Without this information, this is legislating while flying blind. Regarding convictions being set aside, judges already retain the ability to “reactivate” an expunged offense if a repeat offender appears before them. In practical effect, this proposal amounts to eliminating judicial discretion. This is the opposite of what we should want. The problem is not that judges retain discretion; it is fitting to empower them to tailor a response best suited to the particular set of circumstances in front of them. The problem is that judges who deal with DC offenders do not in any way report to District residents.
While there is only one anecdote in the series that relates what I would describe as a failure of YRA sentencing (that of Dalonte Weems), the most egregious mistake chronicled by the Post was Judge William Nooter’s decision to release Antwon Pitt back to the community despite numerous warning flags and a lack of clarity regarding whether Pitt was or was not supposed to be under GPS supervision (he was). Days later Pitt committed a horrendous rape in Hill East. In his lack of due diligence, Judge Nooter failed the people of the District of Columbia, yet he will suffer no consequences for it. The only legislative fix for this problem is called the DC Statehood Act. (It is worth noting that Judge Nooter’s indolence was not the only tragic failure in the Pitt case; Pitt’s abominable record while in prison in Florida was either never communicated to CSOSA or it was never acted upon by that agency. Either scenario is disgraceful.)
Given DC’s lack of control over the agencies that charge, sentence, and supervise its offenders, it is puzzling that another suggestion made in response to the Post series is for the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to exercise greater oversight over DC’s criminal justice system. This would be a dubious suggestion at any point in time; in the face of a Trump/Ryan government, it is irrational. How is it possible that even more involvement of a Republican Congress will be beneficial to the District, when Republicans in Congress have shown nothing but contempt for the will of the people of DC? If lack of political sovereignty is one of the fundamental problems plaguing DC’s criminal justice system, how can further diminishing that sovereignty be any sort of solution?
But bad solutions are not surprising in the face of a poorly identified problem. It’s a sad day for Washington, DC when its premier paper facilitates a climate hostile to evidence and reason. It’s shameful that the Post has taken a path privileging anecdotes over evidence, and assumes that punitive sentencing resolves problems of recidivism without showing that it does. Why are supporters of rehabilitation and leniency responsible for any and all future crime, but proponents of punitive mass incarceration unburdened by its record of failure?
You can print things in a paper, but that doesn’t make it journalism. You can call yourself The Washington Post, but that doesn’t mean you speak in the best interests of the city.
(Editor’s Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly used .038% instead of the correct 3.8%)