Originally published by The Washington Post on December 21, 2016
Written by Amy Brittain
SECOND-CHANCE CITY | This is part of a continuing series that examines issues related to repeat violent offenders in the District of Columbia.
BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va. — Within a remote federal prison, inside a barren conference room, Will Smallwood tries to explain his violent past by talking about a slice of chocolate cake.
He imagines a decadent chocolate cake with creamy frosting. Maybe as a child, he could sneak into the kitchen in the darkness of the night — when no one was watching — and open the refrigerator door. He could take a knife to cut just a sliver of cake for a midnight snack.
“You’re young and you get away with it,” he says.
So maybe you keep going back to the fridge, he says. Night after night. The tiny slivers turn into large slices. And it becomes a habit.
Until you get caught.
Smallwood, now 24, has plenty of time in federal prison — a 22-year sentence — to think about his past and his future, after a murder he committed in 2014 in the District. He will spend the fleeting years of his youth dressed in a baggy beige jumpsuit, sleeping in a small cell, passing the time by watching TV news and walking laps around the prison yard. His young daughters will be grown women by the time he is free.
Before Smallwood killed, there were warning signs that his violent behavior was rapidly escalating on the streets of Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington. He told The Washington Post that he robbed at least 100 people.
D.C. judges twice sentenced him — for simple assault and robbery — under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, a unique law passed in the 1980s that allows shorter sentences for some crimes and offers offenders under age 22 the chance to clear their records. All the while, he says, he returned to the streets to commit more robberies and sell crack cocaine.
“It’s just a slap on the wrist. And then you think you can get away with bigger crimes,” Smallwood says during a recent interview in prison. “I look back now and I say, ‘Damn, I f—ed up.’ ”
A previous Post investigation revealed that more than 3,000 felony sentences have been handed down under the Youth Act since 2010 — the majority of them for crimes of violence or weapons offenses. The Post identified 121 Youth Act offenders who went on to be charged with murder during that time and discovered that hundreds of offenders have received Youth Act sentences more than once.
States such as Michigan, New York and Florida also have statutes that permit the convictions of young adults to remain confidential, but they exclude the most serious violent felonies. New York also limits the age to 18. Florida bars repeat offenders.
The District’s Youth Act opens the door to all offenders under 22 except murderers, puts no limit on how many times the law can be applied and allows for departures from mandatory minimum sentences for violent gun crimes.
“Every time we would go to court, we would ask for the Youth Act and we got it,” Smallwood says, snapping his fingers. “It’s like, ‘Okay, fingers crossed’ — and you get the Youth Act!”
In many ways, Smallwood was just the type of young man the Youth Act had been crafted to help. He had no juvenile record. He had a supportive family. His crimes were serious but not among the worst in D.C. Superior Court. Yet his story still ended in tragedy.
Despite the presence of the word “rehabilitation” in the name of the law, D.C. courts do not track whether participants are rehabilitated. And there are no explicit programs in federal prisons to treat Youth Act offenders. Smallwood says that outside of prison he received little help other than anger-management classes and a mentor he rarely saw. Judges can order extensive evaluations for offenders before they apply the Youth Act, including interviews with psychologists and social workers, to examine the potential for rehabilitation. But Smallwood did not get one.
Advocates for new approaches to criminal justice say violent offenders need more attention than they get from traditional court-ordered probation and supervision, which is enforced by officers who watch and monitor behavior and collect urine tests. To get at the roots of the problem, the advocates say, more time needs to be spent with offenders in their communities to better understand outside influences and how to address them.
In Massachusetts, a four-year program called Roca targets young men ages 17 to 24 who are at a high risk for prison. The program features “relentless outreach” — knocking on doors daily, if necessary — and offers intensive counseling and job and life-skills training, a spokesman said. Private donors fund the program, and the government reimburses the costs if goals are met for reducing incarceration.
In Chicago, Gary Slutkin founded Cure Violence, an organization that focuses on how violence can be treated like an infectious disease. It uses trained workers called “interrupters” to try to stop the spread. The model has been deployed in neighborhoods in Baltimore, New York City, New Orleans and Kansas City, Mo., among other cities, Slutkin said.
Slutkin sees Smallwood’s violent patterns as akin to an untreated illness.
“It’s just like watching someone gradually develop tuberculosis,” he says. “And he’s getting a little sicker until the moment he’s nearly dead. He’s coughing his lungs out. He’s nearly dead, but you’re doing nothing.
“You’re just watching and waiting until they do something horrible.”