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  • Kimberly Tanner

Secure D.C.: The omnibus crime bill and its impact on D.C. youth.

On March 11, 2024, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the Secure D.C. Omnibus Amendment Act of 2024 into law. More commonly known as the “Secure D.C. Act,” the Act altered over 100 different provisions including sentencing adjustments, gun possession, creating temporary drug-free zones, and codifying an “organized retail theft” offense. 

The act comes as Washington is reeling from a marked increase in crime. In 2023, D.C. dealt with a 39% spike in violent crime and a 35% hike in property crime.  Though many jurisdictions, post-COVID, have seen a decrease in crime rates, Washington, D.C., is the exception. With this spike in crime garnering national attention, local officials are pressured to show residents they have ideas for lowering crime. That is where the Secure D.C. Act comes in. 

A 68-page omnibus bill, the Act proposes “the strongest legislative proposals … to better equip DC agencies and communities with needed tools to prevent crime, increase accountability, and strengthen government coordination.”  Critics of the Secure D.C. Act have said that the act is too harsh and does not address the root causes of crime because it will bring back mass incarceration of Black people and juveniles. 

Approximately 2,000 juveniles were arrested in 2023 alone, nearly double the national average. From July to December of 2023, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested hundreds of juveniles for crimes such as armed carjackings, robberies and burglaries. This growing trend pushed Bowser to go as far as to pass laws such as the Prioritizing Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act of 2023 in July and the Juvenile Curfew Enforcement Pilot program in August 2023; however, crime rates have yet to decrease.

Now that Secure D.C. is codified as law, what are the implications for youth or emerging adults? The Secure D.C. Act contains provisions that expressly and directly impact youth. The Act also contains specific provisions that may inadvertently impact youth. As new laws continue acknowledging the culpability of youth, sweeping crime bills like the Secure D.C. Act may counteract these laws, causing more harm than good. 

Direct Impacts on Juveniles.

Section 4 of the Act amended the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services Establishment Act of 2004, requiring the city to hold regular coordination meetings aimed at curtailing gun usage and violence in specific vulnerable neighborhoods. As part of that effort, the Act requires the city to create a new “Director of Emerging Adults” position to help coordinate the city’s efforts to serve individuals in their late teens and early 20s who have aged out of services targeted at children but who are not adequately served by adult systems.

This provision could provide important benefits to the youth and emerging adults of Washington, D.C. Community coordination forms a necessary level of support for both juveniles and emerging adults. Some jurisdictions have developed specialized community supervision caseloads where specially trained officers are assigned individualized cases, connecting youth and emerging adults to targeted employment and educational programming. Ultimately these programs seek to mitigate the consequences of incarceration that follow emerging adults like recidivism.  

These programs and efforts show the importance of a specialized focus on youth and emerging adults. Judicial leaders and legislators, for instance, can work to coordinate with community stakeholders to build a shared understanding of the unique needs of youth and emerging adults, ultimately strengthening the infrastructure of communities most impacted. This “Director of Emerging Adults” role created by Secure D.C. can have just that effect. A coordinated office working on city-wide initiatives can reach the community at a new level. Hopefully, this will create individualized approaches to addressing root causes or impacts of crime affecting youth and emerging adults across various parts of the city. 

Indirect Impacts on Juveniles.

Section 23 of the act amends the District of Columbia Theft and White Collar Crimes Act of 1982, adding a new section—Section 111a, Directing organized retail theft. The act also lowers the threshold for retail theft, making it a felony to steal $500 worth of merchandise compared to the previously codified threshold for retail theft felony of $1,000. 

Some community members argue that the number of arrests for property crimes shows the importance of having such provisions. Metropolitan Police Department already arrested more than 5,200 individuals for property crimes since January 2024. More and more of these individuals are juveniles. WTOP reported that juvenile carjacking arrests nearly doubled in 2023—the average age of those arrested was 15 years old. 

Earlier in 2024, police arrested six people, including four teenagers, on the belief that the group was behind a string of retail store thefts. The thefts allegedly targeted 11 stores, such as Nike and Ulta, in Montgomery County, Maryland, stealing amounts totaling approximately $49,000. Under the Secured D.C. Act, these individuals, including the four teenagers, could be charged with felony retail theft.  

Juvenile advocacy organizations warn that the city cannot simply arrest youth in efforts to curb crime. These organizations argue that Washington, D.C. is suffering from stark pockets of poverty, made worse by the weight of recent extreme inflation. These organizations further cite peer pressure from social media as a toxic promoter encouraging deviant behavior. 

NeeNee Taylor, founder of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, called this aspect of the Secure D.C. Act harmful: “A couple of my young ladies may have committed retail theft—they were actually stealing clothes for themselves to wear to school.” Other advocates cite this need for basic resources as a factor contributing to the rise of juvenile crime in Washington, D.C. 

If these youth are experiencing such strong needs for resources that they go so far as to commit robbery, burglary or retail theft, we can only expect juvenile arrest rates to continue rising. As the government passes laws acknowledging youth’s culpability, sweeping crime bills like the Secure D.C. Act may go against these laws designed to shield youth from the harsh consequences of the adult Criminal legal system.

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