AG Racine Introduces Legislation to Reform the District's Juvenile Justice System

Proposal Would Improve Public Safety and Increase Fairness for DC Youth by Modernizing Process for Charging Children as Adults

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced that he introduced legislation to improve public safety and increase fairness by modernizing the process for charging juveniles in adult court.

The legislation is a key part of AG Racine’s years-long effort since becoming Attorney General to change the way the District thinks about and treats youth who encounter the criminal justice system. These changes aim to improve public safety and achieve better outcomes for children. The Redefinition of Child Amendment Act would change District law so that all children accused of violating local laws would have their cases begin in family court, where juvenile cases are heard and where youth will receive rehabilitation services so they are less likely to reoffend.

“Since I became attorney general, my team has implemented bold reforms to improve the District’s juvenile justice system centered on the principle that children should be treated as children,” said AG Racine. “When young people cause harm, we can hold them accountable for their actions, and, importantly, provide them with the support they need to make better decisions in the future. This fulsome approach enhances public safety by reducing recidivism. This needed legislation would bring our justice system into alignment with long established scientific research that tell us the brain is not fully developed at ages 16 and 17, and that young people, even those who commit serious crimes, can learn and evolve into upstanding and valuable members of our community. We have the chance to make a small change to District law that will improve public safety, reduce victimization, increase fairness, and make a big difference in the lives of children. I encourage the Council to take swift action to pass our bill.”

Under this proposal, cases involving young offenders could still be moved to adult court if a judge determines that the juvenile system cannot successfully rehabilitate a child and a transfer is necessary to protect public safety. Because of the way “child” is defined in current law, the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) can prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds charged with certain crimes as adults, and a judge cannot overrule the decision. This change through legislation would modernize the definition of “child” to reflect modern science and commonsense: children are different than adults, and the decision to treat a child as an adult must be made carefully, based on the facts of the case and the comprehensive review of the rehabilitative prospects of the child. 

In the District, USAO prosecutes most adult crimes in adult court, while the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) prosecutes some minor adult crimes and the vast majority of juvenile cases. OAG works to improve public safety by seeking justice for victims of crime, holding young people accountable if they violate the law, and ensuring justice-involved youth are rehabilitated and do not go on to reoffend.

While the adult justice system’s focus is primarily on punishment, the juvenile system focuses both on accountability for young offenders and on rehabilitation. Neuroscience has shown, and the Supreme Court has held, that children’s brains are not fully developed, making them more impulsive, reckless, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions than adults—and therefore they are less culpable. The fact that their brains are still developing also makes young people more capable of growth and change. 

Unnecessarily charging children as adults undermines our chances of rehabilitating them and undercuts public safety. When District youth are sentenced in adult court, they are sent to adult federal prisons far from home, where they are cut off from family and other support services. Because these are federal prisons, the District has no ability to ensure they receive needed educational and other rehabilitative services. Additionally, the majority of District youth sentenced in adult court since 2013 received sentences they would complete by their 21st birthday. They would then return to the District after being disconnected from their support systems and deprived of rehabilitative and education services, with a felony conviction on their record.

AG Racine’s legislation would change District law to improve public safety, increase fairness in the District’s justice system, and improve outcomes for children by:

  • Changing the process for prosecuting children as adults: This proposed legislation would ensure all children accused of violating local laws would have their cases begin in family court. They would remain in family court—and be treated as children—unless a judge determines that they cannot be rehabilitated in the juvenile system and a transfer to adult court is necessary to protect public safety.
  • Increasing the chances that young offenders are rehabilitated and improving community safety: Treating children as children increases the chances that they will be rehabilitated and will not go on to reoffend. In the juvenile justice system, youth are provided with services, including therapy, anger management, and addiction treatment, and with educational opportunities to help them get on the right track and improve public safety. In contrast, when children are prosecuted as adults, they are set up for failure and cut off from resources.
  • Using modern science to guide the District’s juvenile justice system: Modern science establishes that children’s brains are not fully developed, leading them to be impulsive and impacting their decision-making. These are some of the reasons why children cannot vote, enter the military, drink alcohol, or work in certain industries. This renders them less culpable, and means it is more likely they can be rehabilitated. This legislation would give more children the opportunities to grow and thrive – especially when they make mistakes, instead of giving up on them when they make a wrong choice or treating them as criminals.
  • Reducing racial inequities in the justice system: Nationwide, Black children are 18 times more likely than white children to be sentenced as adults, and they represent 58% of children sentenced to adult correctional facilities. Research has demonstrated that Black boys are more likely than their white peers to be perceived as older than their actual age, perceived as guilty if accused of a crime, and more likely to face police violence. Black girls are also perceived as older and less innocent than their white peers. In part because of this, Black children in the District are more likely to become entangled in the criminal justice system. By requiring judicial approval rather than simply relying on prosecutorial discretion, this legislation would reduce the impact of these racial disparities, help ensure the decision to treat a child as an adult is not impacted by racial bias, and make the system fairer.
  • Creating a juvenile justice system for others to follow: District residents have repeatedly demonstrated their support for evidence-based criminal justice reforms, and particularly for efforts aimed at rehabilitating justice-involved youth. This legislation would move the District from being one of the worst systems—in which prosecutors can file cases in adult court for any reason and without any mechanism for judicial oversight—to one of the best, in which all juvenile cases begin in family court and require a judge’s review to move a case to adult court.

A copy of the Redefinition of Child Amendment Act is available here.

Leadership on Criminal Justice Reform
As the District’s prosecutor in juvenile proceedings, AG Racine has worked to change the way youth are treated in the justice system and implement evidence-based reforms that lead to better outcomes for children and for the community. Over the past six years, AG Racine launched the nation’s first restorative justice program within a prosecutor’s office, worked with MPD to overhaul the way MPD treats children during arrest, and expanded use of diversion and truancy programs to better serve the needs of children and parents, among many other efforts.

AG Racine has also advocated for reforms in the adult justice system. In 2018, he led a broad, bipartisan coalition of 38 attorneys general in calling on House leadership to enact the First Step Act. AG Racine also strongly supported local legislation that allows judicial review of long sentences for individuals who committed crimes when they were younger than 25 and who already have served at least 15 years of their sentence. In 2020, he filed an amicus brief opposing the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia policy of prosecuting felon-in-possession gun cases in federal court rather than local court, arguing that this would lead to over incarceration and disproportionately harms Black residents in the District.