Title 16: Trying Minors as Adults in Washington, D.C.

Under Title 16 of the federal law governing the District of Columbia, the U.S. attorney’s office has absolute authority to charge and prosecute 16- and 17-year olds as adults for certain crimes. Many other states also allow the prosecution of minors under 18 in adult court, but D.C. is unique in that it is not a state and thus only the U.S. Congress can modify that practice.

Giving such automatic authority to the prosecutor:

LACKS SAFEGUARDS: Without case-by-case hearings, it is impossible to ensure that children aren’t overcharged and sent into the adult system with no recourse.

  • D.C. is one of only 13 jurisdictions in the country that grant prosecutors sole discretion over which court (juvenile or criminal) a governs minors.
  • D.C. is one of only four jurisdictions that grants prosecutors this authority without any mechanism allowing a judge to “reverse-waive” a minor back to juvenile court.
  • D.C. is the only jurisdiction in the country in which a federal agency (the U.S. attorney’s office) has the sole discretion to transfer a minor to criminal court, without any judicial review.

IS DISCRIMINATORY AND HARMFUL: “Direct file” (transfer of minors to adult criminal court) is nearly exclusively used against children of color in the District.

  • Between 2015 and 2019, 175 minors were sentenced as adults in D.C.,; all but 16 were Black and only two were categorized as white.
  • 4.6% of all cases in the District involving a youth charged with committing a DC Code offense were charged directly in adult court–more than three times the national average.
  • Children sentenced as adults in D.C. are sent to federal institutions across the country, since the District closed its only prison in 2001. Not only are federal prisons far from minors’ families and friends, they also offer little to no rehabilitation programs and support.

IS CONTRADICTED BY SCIENCE:

  • Scientific research shows that certain areas of the brain, particularly those that affect judgement and decision-making, do not fully develop until the early 20s.
  • Adolescent brain-development research shows that youth are more likely than adults to be permanently traumatized by the harsh conditions in the adult system.
  • The tendency toward violence and law-breaking is strongly correlated with age, largely dissipating by the 30s.

However, elsewhere, practices are changing. D.C. must catch up.

  • Since 2007, 40 states have enacted over 100 laws to remove youth from adult jails and prisons, limit the prosecution of youth in adult courts or revise sentencing rules.
  • California, Colorado, Vermont, Utah and Virginia have all rolled back or eliminated their direct-file statutes in the past decade, while keeping youth violent crime at 40-year lows.
  • Comprehensive and age-appropriate approaches receive wide support across the political spectrum, including from conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, R Street Institute and the James Madison Institute.

Ideally, D.C. would never charge a minor as an adult. But as an interim step, the District should require a hearing before a judge before the prosecutor can transfer a child to adult jurisdiction.