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Teens Can Get Swept Into Adult Prisons. D.C.'s Attorney General Wants To Change That

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, pictured in 2019, is hoping to change how the justice system handles cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds who are charged as adults.
Claire Harbage
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, pictured in 2019, is hoping to change how the justice system handles cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds who are charged as adults.

Updated June 30, 2021 at 12:26 PM ET

A new proposal from District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine could overhaul the way juveniles are charged as adults and offer greater opportunities for rehabilitation than a federal prison.

If passed, the proposal would impact people like Charlie Curtis, who was charged with armed robbery and sent to adult court at the age of 16 — a decision that he said left him confused and adrift.

Curtis said he had problems reading and writing back then, let alone asking the court to appoint him a lawyer. After his conviction, he spent years in a federal prison in New Jersey.

"It's a little bit of everything," Curtis said. "A little scary, a little nervous, you got to grow up real fast. You're not in the high school gym no more."

Curtis returned home when he was 22. It would be a while before he stabilized, got a good job driving a truck and started a family that grew to include three children. He now volunteers to help other young people leaving jail and prison — trying to offer the support he got too late.

What the legislation would change

NPR has learned Racine will introduce legislation in the D.C. Council Wednesday to ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds accused of certain crimes start in the family court system.

"Children should be treated like children, including 16- and 17-year-olds, notwithstanding the seriousness of their alleged offense," Racine said.

The proposed legislation would apply to teens charged with murder, first-degree sexual abuse and armed robbery, among other crimes. Currently, the lead federal prosecutor in D.C. can file those kinds of cases directly in adult court — without any say from a judge — even if those defendants ultimately plead guilty to lesser charges.

D.C. has no federal prisons of its own, so young people convicted as adults can spend years in other states, at great distances from their families. The D.C. attorney general said the majority of underaged defendants charged as adults return home to the District before they are 21, but without the benefit of access to educational programs, vocational training and mentoring they could have received if their cases had been handled in the family courts.

"The adult system doesn't work that way," Racine said. "Federal Bureau of Prisons people will tell you the adult system is not made for kids."

Eduardo Ferrer, the policy director at the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative, said research demonstrates charging young people in the adult system decreases public safety by making it more likely they'll break the law in the future. Most charging decisions in these cases in D.C. are made within a half a day, without the benefit of a longer review of the facts of the case and the background of the teenager, he said.

"The process in D.C. right now, because the U.S. Attorney's Office does not exercise discretion often in terms of keeping kids down in juvenile court, is more of a sledgehammer," Ferrer said. "What we really need is a scalpel."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington declined comment about the proposal and whether it might have objections based on policy or the law. But one legal expert said the Justice Department and Congress may need to get involved, since local officials may lack legal authority to make such a change on their own. The Home Rule Act, passed by Congress in 1973, set out the role of federal prosecutors in the District.

Racine and the Public Defender Service in D.C. see things differently. They think the new proposal, cast as an amendment to current law, passes muster.

Jaclyn Frankfurt, deputy chief of the appellate division in the Public Defender Service, said, "The DC Council has broad authority to pass legislation that affects the citizens of the District and specifically to add, amend, or remove criminal statutes. The Home Rule Act limits the District's authority to change the structure of its court system or the structure of how prosecutorial power is divided. This amendment would do neither of those things."

Ferrer pointed out that the legislation still leaves room for a judge's determination about public safety. "The reality is that a young person still can be transferred to adult court," he said. "The difference is we're taking the time to get it right."

The potential impact

The vast majority — 93% — of the 16- and 17-year-olds who are charged as adults in D.C. are Black. One of them is the son of Keela Hailes. In 2008, he was charged with armed robbery. Hailes said she wasn't consulted about decisions about what was best for her son.

"It's like my son went from a 16-year-old to a 30-year-old overnight," Hailes said.

Her son was convicted and sent to federal prison in North Dakota, too far for her to visit regularly as she had done in the D.C. area. Her son, now 30 years old, is incarcerated again. Hailes said she wishes he would have had more options years ago — a chance for an education, and time spent in a juvenile facility instead of around adults in prison.

She said science suggests young people have less judgment and maturity because their brains are still developing. She thinks the new proposal will make a "huge difference" for juveniles in the legal system in the District.

The proposal is the latest in a series of steps Racine has taken to overhaul juvenile justice in D.C. He pushed the courts to stop shackling young defendants; started a restorative justice program for juveniles to meet with and make amends to victims; and worked to limit the ability of police to put handcuffs on most people under age 12.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.