DC Prosecutors Begin Charging More Juveniles as Adults

September 11, 2023 by Tom Ramstack
DC Prosecutors Begin Charging More Juveniles as Adults
Washington Metropolitan Police investigate near the Capitol after reports of a suspicious vehicle in which two men were detained with guns, on Oct. 19, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press - file)

WASHINGTON — Prosecutors in the District of Columbia are whipping up political controversy over their latest crime-fighting effort that focuses on trying more 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

With juvenile crime at the highest levels in decades, they say they have few better options.

Robberies in Washington are 67% higher this year compared with this time in 2022, according to police data. Carjackings are up 102%.

Matthew Graves, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, announced at a press conference late last month that he told prosecutors in his office to “strongly consider” charging 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if they are arrested for multiple robberies.

He made the announcement while discussing details of a D.C.-based robbery ring that allegedly used stolen vehicles to rob Asian American-owned jewelry stores along the East Coast of hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise.

Although the robbery ring did not consist of juveniles, their style of carjackings was similar to the recent spike in youth crime in Washington, he said.

“A majority of the individuals arrested for robberies and a supermajority of the individuals arrested for carjackings are juveniles,” Graves said at the Aug. 30 press conference.

A policy of charging juveniles as adults runs into criticism from child advocates who question whether prosecuting underage juveniles is punishing them for bad upbringings that led them into crime and violence.

“Some prosecutors want to say that children who commit certain crimes become adults and are no longer eligible for rehabilitation,” Penelope Spain, chief executive officer of the youth advocacy organization Open City Advocates, told The Well News. “But that’s just developmentally false, and those are precisely the children who most need our community’s support.”

Some child psychologists and the U.S. Supreme Court say juveniles should not have the same liability as adults because their brains are not developed enough for them to understand the gravity of their actions.

“What’s more, our community will benefit most in public safety terms by doing this right,” Spain said. “It’s better to provide rehabilitative services through the juvenile system than mere punishment through the adult system.”

Nevertheless, Graves’ announcement is consistent with D.C. Council policy. The council recently approved emergency legislation that expands pretrial detention for juveniles accused of some crimes.

In a related move, the council approved a curfew for juveniles in seven target areas with crime problems, such as Chinatown and the U Street corridor. Police started enforcing the pilot curfew program Sept. 1.

The curfew authorizes police to take juveniles less than 17 years old to the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services until they are reunited with a parent or guardian. The curfew runs Sunday through Thursday from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and Friday through Sunday from midnight to 6 a.m.

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