A Cautionary Tale from the East Coast

By Michele Hanisee

As California suffers from a rising property crime rate thanks to Prop 47, prepares for a flood of felons getting an early release from state prison thanks to Prop 57, and contemplates refusing to jail accused criminals before trial, a cautionary tale has emerged from Washington, DC. A four part series in May by the Washington Post exposed the city’s “Youth Rehabilitation Act” and brought to light just how deadly the desire to give convicted criminals a “second chance” can be.

Washington, D.C. enacted the “Youth Rehabilitation Act” in 1985 to protect youths “from the stigma of lengthy prison sentences.” The Youth Act allows convicted offenders under age 22 to avoid either imprisonment or the lengthy sentences called for by mandatory minimums for certain crimes. The Youth Act also allows for the offender’s record to be expunged upon successful completion of the sentence. All crimes are eligible for this treatment, except murder and a second violent crime while armed.

The Post series focused on the period since 2010, when 45% of all offenders in Washington, D.C. received sentences under this Act. The results were horrid. As detailed in the Post, 121 people in Washington, D.C. are now dead, murdered by those sentenced under this Youth Act. Thirty of the offenders were still on Youth Act probation at the time they committed murder.

Given that 73% of those being sentenced under the Act had committed a violent or weapons offense, it was predictable that they would take advantage of the leniency of the Act to commit more crime. More than 136 of the offenders let loose by the law were subsequently convicted of armed robbery, and at least 200 sentenced for a subsequent violent or weapons offense. Not only were “second chances” given, but repeat “second chances” were the norm–at least 750 offenders were sentenced under this act multiple times.

Typical of the offenders are Tavon Pickney, a now 20-year-old offender convicted of murder in 2015. Pickney told the Post that he wasn’t scared when charged with robbery in 2014 because, “I knew they were going to let me off easy.” Indeed, he was given a suspended sentence and probation by a Judge who at sentencing stated she believed “people should have the opportunity to change their lives.” Pickney subsequently admitted to the Post that he had committed at least a dozen robberies before his initial arrest for robbery in 2014.

The mentality of those who excuse criminal behavior for a “second chance” or more is exemplified by Washington, D.C. Judge Anita Josey-Herring. With prosecutor’s agreement, she sentenced Bijon Brown to a six-month suspended sentence in 2015 for shooting at two taggers, wounding one. A scant 29 days later, Brown opened fire on a rival tagger who surrounded[MH1] a bus he was on. Over prosecutors’ objections, Judge Herring sentenced Brown to a year and a day under the Youth Act.

>Nine days after his release, Brown was charged with a carjacking at gunpoint. Per Post reporters, Judge Herring was a mite defensive when Post reporters visited her courtroom. From the bench, “she cast blame on the juvenile victims of the first shooting, saying they had been “terrorizing” the neighborhood. Then she said the Metrobus shooting had looked like “something out of Straight Outta Compton because of the ‘mob’ of men that confronted Brown.”

In California, there has been a rush in California to excuse criminal behavior, whether it be Governor Jerry Brown with his love of “second chances” via Prop 57, or allowing who were under 23 years old when they committed violent crimes resulting in life sentences early parole hearings.

Next up on the horizon are proposals to abolish bail schedules from State Senator Bob Hertzberg and Assemblyman Rob Bonta. Their source of inspiration is the Washington, D.C. pretrial release system, which releases 91% of arrestees and sees about 11% of those released get rearrested for new crimes. Naturally, when reached for comment on these rearrests, the head of the D.C. pre-trial release system sniffed; “when it comes to human beings, you can’t stop people from making bad decisions.”

No, you can’t stop human beings from making bad decisions. However, you can protect the public by removing them from society via incarceration, thereby depriving them of the opportunity to repeat their bad decisions at the expense of others. As the Washington Post series painfully illustrates, the desire to give those who choose to commit crimes a “second chance” puts the life and property of innocent citizens in danger. California apparently will have to learn that lesson the hard way, just as Washington D.C. has with its “Youth Rehabilitation Act,” which we have written about extensively in previous blogs.

To read our previous concerns with the bail reform proposals, click here and here.

Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.

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