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A second chance … to commit crimes?

D.C. lawmakers say leniency in youth sentencing has not deterred crime

Youthful offender laws offer lenient sentences and a clean record. Many juveniles squander the opportunity, committing new and escalated crimes. Some are sentenced a third, fourth and fifth time under such “second chance” laws.

Lawmakers in the District of Columbia are pushing to repeal or scale back the Youth Rehabilitation Act, whose alumni have committed hundreds of robberies, rapes and murders after release. Advocates urge fixing the program rather than scrapping it.

What do you think? Should teenagers and young adults get a second chance, knowing that some will re-offend?

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No guarantee: some youths rehabilitate, some re-offend.

A criminal conviction, especially a felony conviction, can present lifelong barriers. A young person with a record may be barred from college, jobs, housing, loans, even volunteer work. Bad decisions or bad circumstances as a teenager end up ruining their entire future.

The original intent of D.C.’s Youth Rehabilitation Act was to rehabilitate juveniles before they became habitual offenders. In practice, the Youth Act has been misapplied and poorly monitored. An in-depth study by the Washington Post revealed that more than 3,000 offenders under the age of 22 were given sharply reduced sentences for robberies and other violent crimes during a six-year span. A disturbing number committed new crimes, including more than 100 who committed murders within a few years of their early release from prison.

South Carolina’s Youthful Offender Act also aims to provide second chances to those convicted of crimes between the ages of 17 and 25. It allows judges to give reduced sentences or waive sentences in exchange for probation. After five years, youths can apply to have their arrest and conviction records expunged – if they complete the sentence, including probation and parole. Many offenses are eligible for expungement, including assault, theft, burglary, vandalism and drug possession. Most violent crimes, weapon offenses and sexual offenses are excluded.

The key is support and supervision

The D.C. law is deservedly under scrutiny. With a new “law and order” administration in the White House, there may be calls to end such leniency programs elsewhere, including here in South Carolina.

Juvenile justice advocates say that such laws are needed to deter youths from a life of crime and dependency. There will always be stories of people who abused the mercy of the court. But the entire juvenile justice system is built on the premise of a second chance. When the system provides services and monitoring of youthful offenders, they can rehabilitate. In the District of Columbia, despite the heinous crimes of those who gamed the Youth Act system, just 3 percent of those who complete their probation go on to re-offend.

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