Advocate for Youth Sees Progress in Reforming D.C.’s System

By Debra Bruno

April 13, 2017

Eddie Ferrer Thanks in part to Eduardo Ferrer, young people in the District of Columbia will see a new legal landscape. The Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act of 2016 became law on April 4, which means that juveniles will no longer be faced with solitary confinement if they get arrested. They’ll be kept separate from adults. And they will have a chance to seal any criminal records when they turn 18, so they don’t face lifelong discrimination.

Ferrer, legal and policy director and a founding member of DC Lawyers for Youth, was one of several advocates who helped get the act through the D.C. Council last year. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the bill on December 7, and, after the mandatory 60-day layover period for congressional review, it automatically became law last week.

The D.C. Bar chatted with Ferrer, who also serves as a supervising attorney for the Georgetown University Law Center’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, about changes in juvenile justice and what that means for the city. An edited version of that conversation is below.

Where does D.C. stand in the world of juvenile justice? 

D.C., for a long time, was near the bottom. The old Oak Hill Youth Center [which closed in 2009] was probably one of the worst juvenile facilities in the country. Over the last 10 to 12 years, D.C. has been moving substantially in the right direction. This law is a huge step forward.

What’s the purpose of the act?

What [it] does is really try to do two things: to incur all that we’ve learned about adolescent development over the last 20 to 30 years and what the Supreme Court has tried to incorporate. That’s one key element. But the thing that makes this act one of the more progressive reform efforts in the country is that it addresses a number of issues that other jurisdictions have done, but D.C. incorporates them all into one place.

For example?

One place may have ended shackling young women while they’re pregnant. But [this act] also tackles the issue of detaining a status offender, which means it’s because a kid may have violated curfew or truancy. If you’re missing school, you can no longer be detained at the youth services center.

What else?

The elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for kids charged as adults. And giving jurisdiction of the unit for kids at the adult jail to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. There’s also a provision in the act that if there is enough space at the juvenile facility, they will just get moved instead of being in a unit in the adult jail.

How long did it take to pass the bill?

We’ve been working on parts of this bill for about 10 years, but the parts all kind of came together within the past year, in large part because of the leadership from [Ward 5 Councilmember] Kenyan McDuffie.

Will the Trump administration have an impact on juvenile justice reform in D.C.?

Yes—they will be appointing judges for the D.C. bench. Trump could have a substantial impact on the D.C. judiciary and on the U.S. Attorney’s Office. My hope is that they continue a tradition of a lighter touch.

What is the philosophy behind the legislation?

What we want is for kids to be not getting into trouble in the first place. One of our big focuses is on trying to get folks to realize that when they’re talking about delinquency and the justice system, it only gets involved once something has gone wrong. It’s not going to be the system to solve the problem in the long term.

What are the alternatives?

We’re trying to move into a public health model. We want to look at what the root causes of truancy are, and to prevent them from taking hold. It comes down to investing directly in kids, their families, and their communities, giving them the services and support they need to be healthy and successful.

What was your reaction to the recent Washington Post series “Second-chance law for young criminals puts violent offenders back on D.C. streets”?

First, the notion that incarceration, longer sentences, and mandatory minimums might make us feel safe—it doesn’t make us safe. There is much research that prison increases recidivism. Also, there’s a notion there that we need less options. Judges can individually tailor a sentence—we need more options and more services.

Finally, I’m not trying to minimize what the victims have been through. But when you look at the numbers, [released offenders who went on to commit violent crimes] was less than 2 percent of all the sentences given out. We can’t base policy on the outliers. For me, it comes down to the best option is to make sure that no one is a victim in the first place. That includes kids who grow up to become offenders. When you talk about victims and offenders as a dichotomy, the sides fall apart. Those kids were often victims themselves.

You served on the board of The Next Step Charter School. Tell us about it.

The school was founded as an educational program for teen parents. Now it’s adult basic education, ESL, and a GED program for 16- to 24-year-olds. Most are recent immigrants or have been pushed out or dropped out of traditional D.C. public or charter schools. It’s a population of kids that are very at-risk.

What other groups are you involved with?

I’m the vice chair of DC127, whose goal is to reverse the foster care and adoptive waiting list in D.C. The organization is trying to recruit churches and faith communities to get more involved, and there’s a network of volunteers who are interested in agreeing to be foster parents or host homes. It creates a continuum of ways to get involved. Maybe you can’t foster, but you could agree to be a babysitter for a parent.

How did DC Lawyers for Youth come about?

A group of alumni of Georgetown Law’s Juvenile Justice Clinic were looking for a way to stay involved after we graduated. We noticed a gap: no one was working on a concerted policy and advocacy agenda for the juvenile justice system in D.C. DC Lawyers for Youth was launched officially in 2007 but did not have full-time staff until 2010.

What’s your background?

I’m from California, and both my parents are Cuban immigrants. I had an immigrant-experience childhood. My family was very grateful for the opportunity—they lost everything when they came here. My older sister is a teacher and the other is a doctor. To be able to do that in a generation, it speaks to the power of the American dream. That was instilled in me from a young age.

You were involved in the exoneration case of David Boyce, who was freed in 2014 after 23 years in prison for murder. How did you end up working on the case?

I was a young associate at Howrey and the case came through the door. I had made it clear I was interested in pro bono work, so I worked with Boyce for four or five years. I handled it through the state level habeas trial, where we lost. It was devastating. The decision we were able to get from the judge was, yes, the government withheld exculpatory evidence and, yes, it perjured itself, but Mr. Boyce raised the issue 20 years too late. [Eventually the case went to federal court, which vacated the conviction.] He was an inspiring client.

What lessons did you learn from it?

It shined a light on how much power prosecutors and police officers have. Based on a jailhouse informant and circumstantial evidence, they were able to get him convicted. To lose and then go to federal court before he was actually vindicated showed me the immense power and weight of the system against individuals and how easy it is for a system to get it wrong.

On the personal part, I was devastated when we lost. This was a man I had no doubt was innocent, and I had failed to get him out. From the bigger picture, though, it ended up being a good story. Some of our failures are only failures depending on the period of time you look at them. What may seem like a failure today may just be a learning opportunity or a smaller step back.

Debra Bruno is a freelance journalist who writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Washingtonian Magazine. She lived in China for three years and has worked at Legal TimesRoll Call, and other publications.