Will Smallwood, 24, has plenty of time in federal prison — a 22-year sentence — to think about his past and his future after a 2014 murder he committed in Washington, D.C. Before Smallwood killed, there were warning signs that his violent behavior was rapidly escalating. He told the Washington Post that he robbed at least 100 people. Judges twice sentenced him — for simple assault and robbery — under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, a 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 said during an interview in prison. “I look back now and I say, ‘Damn, I f—ed up.’ ”
The Post has reported that more than 3,000 felony sentences have been issued under the Youth Act since 2010, most of them for crimes of violence or weapons offenses. The Post identified 121 Youth Act offenders who went on to be charged with murder and discovered that hundreds of offenders have received Youth Act sentences more than once. D.C. 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 person the law had been crafted to help. He had no juvenile record. He had a supportive family. His crimes were serious but not among the worst. Yet his story still ended in tragedy.