‘Progressive Prosecutors’ in D.C. Focus on 'Restorative Justice' for Juvenile Offenders

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine speaks at One Judiciary Square in Washington on Oct. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON – D.C. Chief Deputy Attorney General Natalie Ludaway said all of the District of Columbia’s prosecutors consider themselves “progressive prosecutors.”

Ludaway’s comments were made during a recent discussion organized by George Washington University Law School titled, “The New Old Jim Crow: Policing Black Bodies in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

“In terms of prosecutors, and we consider ourselves progressive prosecutors, all of our prosecutors have been trained on unconscious bias so that they are looking at youths as youths,” she said at the Black Law Students Association and Association of Black Law Alumni Spring Conference at GW.

Ludaway said the district focuses on “restorative justice” for juveniles who commit crimes.

Using the example of a young person stealing someone’s smartphone, Ludaway touted the benefits of the district’s Alternatives to the Court Experience (ACE) Diversion Program.

Ludaway said the young person might be arrested for the crime and “generally held in lock-up, and then that morning our prosecutor goes through the list and really making very quick decisions of how that youth should be treated.”

“If the youth receives diversion, we work with a program called ACE diversion and ACE diversion, for $4,000, for that youth, $4,000 over a 6-month period, that youth, instead of entering the criminal justice system, will be given mentorships, mental health, monitoring in school; sometimes it means being able to go to activities, to museums,” she said.

According to Ludaway, the $4,000 diversion estimate compares to probation at $40,000 and confinement at $70,000.

“The ACE division program – 78 percent of youths have not been re-arrested since 2015,” she said.

The bipartisan Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017 has been introduced in this session of Congress by Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.). The bill would “authorize the appropriation of about $1.6 billion over the 2018-2022 period for the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to operate programs to reduce juvenile justice delinquency.”

During an interview after the discussion, Ludaway encouraged Congress to take a similar approach to young people as D.C. with its juvenile justice reform efforts.

“It should be a focus on restorative justice. It should be a focus on recognizing that we’re dealing with youths, that we’re dealing with youths who come from different backgrounds who haven’t had opportunities who need help,” she told PJM.

“As I said in the discussion, it’s really a public health crisis of where youths don’t have the right support, the right mental health therapy, the right opportunities, support in schools, just sometimes basic nutrition,” she added. “So we need to really know that when you may find a kid that takes a cell phone from someone there’s more behind that act.”

Ludaway was asked if there are areas of the district’s criminal justice system she would like to see Congress implement nationally. She mentioned a letter that D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine wrote to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“He and other AGs have sought to remind the federal government that the old ways of mandatory minimums did not work – that it is rehabilitation that we need to look at,” she said. “But punishment in and of itself does not work, and so we have to look at other ways of keeping people safe.”

When asked if she thinks D.C. serves as a model for national gun laws, Ludaway replied, “We are a jurisdiction, where, in terms of what the people of the District of Columbia want, we’ve said we don’t want guns. We want sensible and strict gun control.”

As for any gun law changes she would like to see made in D.C. in the absence of federal action, Ludaway replied, “I’ll pass on that.”

During the discussion, Ludaway also touched upon the legalization of marijuana. She explained that race played a role in the reason D.C. decided to make recreational marijuana legal.

“One of the reasons for doing that is 89 percent of people who were criminalized for marijuana possession were black when we know black people were not the only persons who used marijuana – so, again, examples of disparity,” she said.

Joseph Yarbough, a staff attorney with the D.C. Public Defender Service, applauded Racine for his “progressive ideas” that have “played out on the ground.”

“Less people are being incarcerated, less juveniles, I should say, are being incarcerated. Less juveniles are being charged – that is a good thing. However, I think policies that have been laid out on high levels have not come forth always on the ground levels in certain circumstances,” he said. “When you think about it, the way mass incarnation of black bodies starts is with the police.”

Yarbough said the police officers in the field “do not always” follow the ideas of their higher-ups.

“In certain units – it’s not all the police, it would be certain units of the police – the way they police is the old school way of policing. For instance, you can take a look at the gun recovery unit, the narcotics and special investigations unit,” he said.

Yarbough cited former D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier saying that “jump-outs,” in which teams quickly arrive in a neighborhood, jump out and starting making arrests, do not occur.

“That is a lie. They do,” he said. “You’ll see them go into a neighborhood and you will see on the body cam they literally jump out unannounced, no cause, no basis and start rolling up on people to see who runs.”

He continued, “Whoever runs, that’s going to be who is arrested because, yes, some people do have guns and drugs and everything on them, but it’s about why you approach them in the first place. So, as a general matter, you are starting with approaching only black people to start with, inherently, you are only going to arrest black people.”

Yarbough said ACE does help the young people who are charged with thefts and similar crimes but does not help those arrested for sexual assault or other violent crimes.

“The kids that I think need the most help don’t get any access to those,” he said. “They get the petition so that gets us to court.”