D.C. Attorney General Plan Could Put Fewer Teens In Adult Prisons Karl Racine's proposal could overhaul the way juveniles are charged as adults and offer greater opportunities for rehabilitation.


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

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Across the country, many prosecutors are considering how to reduce the number of teens prosecuted as adults. They say it's a recognition that the current system isn't working. The attorney general in Washington, D.C., is the latest to propose such a change, which he says is a racial justice issue. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine says now is the time to change the way the juvenile justice system works.

KARL RACINE: Children should be treated like children, including 16 and 17-year-olds, notwithstanding the seriousness of their alleged offense.

JOHNSON: Under current law, federal prosecutors in Washington can file adult charges against teens who commit serious crimes, including murder, sexual assault and armed robbery. Local prosecutors and judges don't get a say in those decisions, even though they have big consequences, like sending the 16 and 17-year-olds into the adult legal system and eventually to prison alongside people with a long criminal history. That's what happened to Charlie Curtis. Curtis was charged with armed robbery as an adult when he was 16 years old. He spent years in federal prison.

CHARLIE CURTIS: It's a little bit of everything - a little scary, a little nervous - because you got to grow up real fast.

JOHNSON: Grow up real fast because, he says, he wasn't in the high school gym anymore. Curtis returned home at age 22. It took a long time for him to stabilize and find a good job driving a truck. Now he volunteers to help other young people returning from jail in prison to give them the support he didn't have.

EDUARDO FERRER: We know from lots of research that the adult system charging young people in the adult system actually decreases public safety.

JOHNSON: Eduardo Ferrer is policy director at the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative.

FERRER: It makes it more likely that they will continue to commit offenses in the future.

JOHNSON: By contrast, Ferrer says, young people whose cases are handled at family court get more access to education, anger management and mentoring. The new proposal still gives local judges the option of moving a teen into the adult system, if they determine a young person can't be rehabilitated and there's a danger to public safety. Right now it's the federal prosecutors in D.C. who make those decisions, sometimes without the benefit of all the background on a juvenile's history. Again, Eduardo Ferrer.

FERRER: Law enforcement might be upset because they feel like this might be lenient on young people. The reality of it is a young person can still get transferred to adult court. The difference is, we're taking the time to get it right.

JOHNSON: The police department in the U.S. attorney's office had no comment on the proposal, but one legal expert suggested it might require federal action from Congress, since a 1973 law set out the role of federal prosecutors in D.C. The D.C. Public Defender Service says the city council has broad power to add or remove crimes from D.C. law. They say the new proposal would not significantly affect the structure of the court system or prosecutors' power. For Racine, this is also a racial justice issue.

RACINE: Locally, in the District of Columbia, over 93% of juveniles sentenced in adult court are Black.

JOHNSON: He says young people sometimes make big mistakes, but their brains are still developing, and getting them the services they need early in life will make everyone in the community safer.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.


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