Public Roundtable before the Committee on Judiciary on Sentencing in the District of Columbia

Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo
Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Public Roundtable before the Committee on the Judiciary on
     Sentencing in the District of Columbia: Agency Roles and Responsibilities
Thursday February 9, 2017
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Good morning Chairman Allen and Councilmembers.  My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth. DCLY is a non-profit action tank focused on using data, research, evidence, and our experience to improve DC’s juvenile justice system.  Together with our allies who include juvenile justice advocates, defense attorneys, post-adjudication counsel, education attorneys and community-based service providers we are working to make the District’s juvenile justice system the smallest and best system. By the “smallest” I mean that the system should be reserved for only those young people for whom it is absolutely necessary and the “best” means that we want our young people to touch the system once and that is it—that they will have positive outcomes after coming into contact with the system. Thank you for the opportunity to testify here today.

In my testimony today, I will begin by talking about what policies and approaches will contribute most effectively to public safety in our communities. I will also address the critical component of investing in returning citizens and their communities as well as understanding data related to the issue of sentencing. Finally, I will offer some recommendations for the Council. 

Public Health Approach

Public safety is an issue we all care about deeply.  Like you, we want to proactively ensure that crime does not happen in the first place, rather than merely reacting to it after someone has been harmed.  As a result, we urge the DC Council to continue moving our approach to crime to an evidence-based public health approach[1] rather than one that views and emphasizes the criminal justice system as the main arbiter of public safety.   Indeed, solutions that focus simply on policing, prosecution, and incarceration are short sighted, and ultimately, research shows, do not make us safer.  Instead, improving public safety requires holistic solutions that are community-wide and multigenerational.[2]  In other words, without addressing the root causes of crime and recidivism, there will not be sustainable crime reduction.

The Council recognized as much when it unanimously passed the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act (NEAR Act), which established multiple measures that addressed public safety through a focus on trauma reduction and evidence-based programs aimed at reducing recidivism. If these programs are fully funded and implemented with fidelity in the District, they will do more to improve public safety than any amendments to the sentencing and set aside provisions of the Youth Rehabilitation Act will ever accomplish.  As a result, if the Council is looking for an immediate way to improve public safety, rather than amend the Youth Act, the Council should fund and ensure implementation of the NEAR Act immediately. 

The Youth Rehabilitation Act

That said, we do not believe that funding and implementing the NEAR Act and improving the efficacy of the Youth Act are mutually exclusive.  Indeed, we agree with the District’s decision to further study the Youth Act as much of the information about the Youth Act that has been presented publicly by the Washington Post is both incomplete and misleading.  There are a number of flaws to the analysis conducted in the article, but I want to briefly highlight four:

First, perhaps most importantly, the recent series suggest that harsher sentencing would have prevented the individuals highlighted in their article from reoffending. However, research and evidence regarding the effectiveness of mandatory minimums and longer sentences does not show a correlation between longer periods of incarceration and reduced recidivism, reoffending or less crime. Rather, there is evidence to suggest that prison increases recidivism, making us less safe.[3]

Second, the article suggests that policy should be built on outliers.  According to the article, since 2010, 3,188 people received sentences for felony crimes under the Youth Act. While the articles focus on the small number of individuals who received a Youth Act sentence and went on to be arrested for murder (51), it does not factor in the significant number of misdemeanor sentences given under the Youth Act, nor does it include the number of individuals who successfully met the “set aside” provisions of the Youth Act, and, thus are not counted. 

Third, the article failed to provide a clear comparison group for the small number of individuals who were arrested for murder after receiving the Youth Act. What is the violent recidivism rate for eligible youth offenders who did not receive Youth Act sentences? Without this comparison, it would be a mistake to make hasty conclusions about the effectiveness of particular legislation.

Fourth, the article failed to explain the full scope of the Youth Act.  In addition to the sentencing and set aside provisions mentioned in the article, the Youth Act also contains provisions that require the District to provide developmentally appropriate facilities and services to certain youth sentenced under the Youth Act.  Had the Post investigated this provision of the Youth Act as well, it would have learned that such facilities and services do not currently exist in any meaningful way.

The reality is this: there are a number of flaws with the way the District works with young offenders, but the sentencing and set aside provisions are not the central issues that need to be addressed if our goal is to improve public safety.  We need to address the lack of meaningful family contact (particularly when young offenders are sent to BOP facilities), effective vocational services, high-quality education services, and the general lack of an intentional developmentally appropriate approach to young offenders.  Thus, while we agree with the need to study the Youth Act as the information we have to date should not be the basis for policy decisions, we urge the Council to require a comprehensive review of the Youth Act and the manner in which young offenders are treated in the justice system, rather than just the narrow sentencing and set aside provisions. 


This conversation about sentencing and public safety also must include considering what happens to people after they have been incarcerated. The majority of all incarcerated youth and young adults return back to into our communities, and when they return they often face few prospects for employment, housing, and a lack of effective services. To remedy the current gaps, the District should develop an intentional continuum of evidence-based (or otherwise proven) mental health, workforce development, and adult education programs specifically for young adult returning citizens in the District of Columbia.  

Convictions and incarceration greatly impact an individual’s prospects in terms of financial situation, education and housing options. This is just one reason that the set aside provided under the Youth Act is an important right step. This alone is not enough though. If the District cares about recidivism, there needs to be a strategy to assist returning citizens. Without access to credit and capital the obstacles are steep. Plenty of individuals do manage to overcome these steep hurdles created by incarceration, but providing intentional supports will give returning citizens the footing to thrive and contribute rather than merely survive. As a result, The District should create a deliberate strategy to assist returning citizens with access to credit, access to capital, and support with building their own businesses.  To support and set up returning citizens for success is not just an investment in their lives but also an investment in the safety and wellbeing of the District’s families and communities. 


Councilmembers, as I’ve stated, effective public safety policy requires holistic solutions. Therefore, it will be important as you address public safety issues that you look at other systems, which can positively impact public safety in our city.  We believe that the recommendations we’ve made today will make the District safer for all its residents as well as make our communities stronger. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today and I am available to answer any questions you may have.


What Next Steps Should the District Take to Improve Public Safety?

The District can and should do more to help prevent recidivism by system-involved young adults in the District of Columbia. Young adults who are sentenced under the Youth Act often serve their sentences in prisons far away from the District where they receive little to no services. The young adults then return home and are faced with a similar dearth of opportunity. Longer sentences and limiting the eligibility for the set aside will not fix these deficits. In order to reduce recidivism and improve public safety, District would be more successful pursuing the following policy solutions:

  1. Study the full scope of the Youth Rehabilitation Act: While the Youth Rehabilitation Act is an unlikely cause of recidivism; the implementation of the Youth Act should be studied with an eye toward determining how to improve either the Youth Act directly or the services that are supposed to be provided to young offenders under the Youth Act, or both. In other words, in addition to studying the questions the potential impacts – positive and negative – of the set-aside and sentencing provisions in the statute, we should also study the implementation of other provisions of the statute meant to improve the District’s criminal justice system, including how and where youth are incarcerated and well as the availability and efficacy of reentry services, so that more recipients of the Youth Act earn and receive the set-aside. For instance, the statute also suggests the creation of separate facilities and services specifically geared towards the developmental needs of specific youth offenders. The implementation of these provisions should be reviewed as well.
  2. Seek to ensure placement of all DC residents, but particular young adult residents, in Bureau of Prison facilities no more than 100 miles outside of the District of Columbia: Family involvement during incarceration is critical to the successful reentry of DC residents returning to the community from prison. As a result, the District should explore the implementation of policies or practices that would keep DC residents, particularly young adult offenders, sent to the BOP facilities as close to the District as possible. Additionally, the District should consider providing financial support or transportation for families seeking to visit their loved ones while in a BOP facility.
  3. Fully fund the NEAR Act: Increasing public safety requires a holistic approach, not a silver bullet. The NEAR Act, which the District passed in 2015, would provide the District with a number of additional useful tools to intervene with individuals who have already found themselves in contact with the criminal justice system. The interventions called for in the NEAR Act are based on effective programs already demonstrated to work in other jurisdictions if implemented with fidelity. If implemented in the District, these programs would invest resources such as mentorship, job training, housing assistance, and in some cases, financial assistance, directly in some of the most disadvantaged individual residents of the District and their communities. The NEAR Act should be fully funded in the FY18 budget.
  4. Create a continuum of community-based services geared to supporting system-involved young adults: Too often, young adults return to the District after completing their prison sentence with little prospects and too few effective services. As a result, in addition to funding the specific violence-prevention programs discussed in the NEAR Act, the District should develop an intentional continuum of evidence-based (or otherwise proven) mental health, workforce development, and adult education programs specifically for young adult returning citizens in the District of Columbia.
  5. Help young returning citizens build wealth: The collateral consequences of a conviction can be devastating to an individual’s financial, educational, and housing prospects. Such collateral consequences are among the reasons that the set aside provided under the Youth Act in specific cases is so important. However, the set asides are not sufficient. The District should create a deliberate strategy to assist returning citizens with access to credit, access to capital, and support with building their own businesses. Such assistance would better help returning citizens build a bright future rather than just surviving.
  6. Incorporate the research regarding adolescent development into our policies and practices relating to system involved 18-24 year olds: Too often, the adult criminal justice system is one size fits all – the same punishments, prisons, and services apply to an individual whether they are 20, 40, or 60. However, research conducted in the fields of psychology and neurology over the last 30 years has demonstrated that adults are different from young adults who are different from youth. Indeed, the period of adolescence (puberty to adulthood) is a period of significant growth and maturation as well as being the second most plastic period of human development behind early childhood (approximately 0 to 3). Moreover, as a result of the physiological, neurological, and psychosocial processes that take place during adolescence, adolescents both have diminished decision-making capabilities when compared to adults, making them less culpable, and have an increased capacity for positive change with the correct interventions. This research regarding adolescent development should drive differentiation in how we approach the rehabilitation of young adults.

[1] A public health approach to public safety is a multi-tiered approach that invests in evidenced-based prevention and intervention programs that eliminate or mitigate the underlying factors that contribute to crime while also responding to crime when it does happen in a manner supported by the research regarding what actually works.  A public health approach is about efficacy, not retribution. 

[2] Center for Disease Control, Preventing Youth Violence Opportunities for Action, available at

[3] See National Research Council, (2014). The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, J. Travis, B. Western, and S. Redburn, Editors. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; The Effects of Prison Sentences on Recidivism: 1999-3, Paul Gendreau and Claire Goggin, Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, University of New Brunswick, and Francis T. Cullen, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati; “Deterrence in Criminal Justice Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment, (Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project, November 2010). 

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