From 2007 to 2012, 541 youth were charged as adults and incarcerated in adult jail in the District of Columbia. While incarcerated in the adult jail, these DC youth were housed in a developmentally inappropriate and inadequate facility where they receive limited educational, behavioral health, and vocational services. Most were not permitted to have in-person visits with family members. The majority of the time that youth spent at the adult jail was prior to trial, when youth are presumed innocent of the offense.
Research has consistently shown that trying youth as adults does not promote public safety and that youth in the adult system are at increased risk for victimization and suicide. The Centers for Disease Control found that youth placed in the adult system are more likely to commit future crimes than similar youth treated in the juvenile system. Adult facilities generally do not offer the rehabilitative programs youth need to turn their lives around, and their staff are often insufficiently trained to work with youth. Youth in adult facilities are also at greater risk for sexual victimization, physical assault, and suicide.
This report explains how youth enter the adult system in DC, summarizes data about which DC youth experience adult prosecution, explains the scientific literature on adolescent brain development and the effects of incarcerating youth in adult facilities, and notes deficiencies in the Juvenile Unit that currently holds DC youth charged as adults.
Finally, the report offers three policy recommendations that would restore balance to DC’s approach of the prosecution of youth:
- Prohibit the pre-trial detention of youth in adult facilities. They are innocent until proven guilty, and innocent children should not be exposed to the harmful environment of adult jail.
- Allow for “reverse transfer” motions, in which a judge can hear arguments about which system is most appropriate for the youth. If the judge decides that the youth can be rehabilitated before age 21 and that the public interest would be best served by placing the youth in the juvenile system, the judge should be able to transfer the youth back to the juvenile system.
- End “once an adult, always an adult.” Currently, any youth with an adult conviction must have any subsequent charges handled in adult court, no matter how minor they are and even if local prosecutors would prefer to charge the case in juvenile court. The default rule should always be that children under age 18 are treated in the juvenile system.