The Youth Rehabilitation Act (YRA) in Washington, D.C. gives the court greater flexibility when imposing a sentence on a person who was under the age of 25 at the time the crime was committed. There are two major benefits to a sentence that is imposed under the Act. First, in cases in which there is a mandatory minimum prison term, the Act allows the court to impose a sentence that is below that minimum. Second, the Act authorizes the court to “set aside” a conviction (that is, to seal it from public view) upon successful completion of the sentence. D.C. Code §§ 24-901 to 906.
First enacted in 1985 and amended most recently in 2018, the YRA applies to all crimes except for murder, first degree murder that constitutes an act of terrorism, second degree murder that constitutes an act of terrorism, first and second degree sexual abuse, and first degree child sexual abuse. D.C. Code § 24-901(6). Its purpose is to “separate youth offenders from more mature, experienced offenders” and to provide an “opportunity for a deserving youth offender to start anew through expungement of his criminal record.”
The YRA also provides the court with greater discretion with respect to the sentence imposed. For example, the YRA allows the court to disregard a mandatory minimum sentence that might otherwise apply. D.C. Code § 24-903(b)(2).
There are two steps to the process. First, the judge must agree at the time of the sentencing to sentence the eligible young person under the YRA. As described in greater detail below, the court must consider a number of different factors in making this decision. Regardless of the decision it makes, it must document its decision in writing.
Second, the court must decide at the time the defendant concludes the sentence whether or not to “set aside” the conviction. “Setting aside” a conviction is more akin to sealing a conviction than expunging it. In other words, although the defendant is allowed to say truthfully that he or she was never convicted of the offense, the “set aside” does not destroy all records associated with the conviction. It merely hides the records from public view. The conviction can still be used for sentencing enhancements, for impeachment, and for sex offender registration. It can also be considered during later sentencing hearings. D.C. Code § 24-906(f). Moreover, the “set aside” applies only to records of the conviction. The defendant must still file a motion to seal public records associated with the arrest under D.C. Code § 16-803.
In cases in which the court suspends imposition or execution of potential jail-time and imposes a period of probation only, the court must order the defendant to perform a minimum of 90 hours of community service unless the court determines that such an order would be unreasonable. D.C. Code § 24-903(a).
In deciding whether or not to accord YRA treatment to a “youth offender,” the court must consider a number of different factors, including (1) the defendant’s age at the time of the offense, (2) the nature of the offense and the defendant’s role in the the offense, (3) whether the defendant was previously sentenced under the YRA, (4) the defendant’s participation in any rehabilitative programs in the District, (5) any previous contacts with the juvenile and criminal justice systems, (6) the defendant’s family and community circumstances at the time of the offense, including any history of abuse, trauma, or involvement in the child welfare system, (7) the defendant’s ability to appreciate the risks and consequences of his/her conduct, (8) any reports of physical, mental or psychiatric examinations, (9) the defendant’s use of unlawful substances, (10) the defendant’s capacity for rehabilitation, and (11) any oral or written statements provided by a victim of the offense. D.C. Code § 24-903(c)(2).
One of the major things to keep in mind about the YRA is that it only applies to sentencing after a person has pled guilty or been convicted of a crime. As a result, there are often better alternatives for first-time offenders who seek to avoid a conviction altogether.
Finally, it is important to note that treatment under the Act can be retroactive. That is, assuming you can meet the eligibility criteria, you can file a motion to take advantage of its provisions even if you were sentenced before the new Act entered into force. According to D.C. Code § 24-906(e-1)(1), a “youth offender, regardless of whether the youth offender was sentenced under this chapter, may, after the completion of the youth’ offender’s probation or sentence of incarceration, supervised release, or parole, whichever is later, file a motion to have the youth offender’s conviction set aside under this section.” A “youth offender” is defined as anyone who was 24 years or age or younger at the time of the offense.