By Michael Shank and Erica Marshall

On November 4 the voters in the District will turn out to choose our City’s next mayor. On the same ballot, after casting a vote for David Catania, Muriel Bowser or Carol Schwartz, voters will be asked to choose between five candidates for Attorney General. Despite the fact that this is an historic election in the District, and marks the first time that the position of the City’s chief lawyer will be held by an elected official, a recent poll conducted by NBC 4/Washington Post/Marist indicated that 57% of the participants surveyed were undecided.

With just a day left until the election, now is the time learn about the five candidates, Lorie Masters, Karl A. Racine, Edward “Smitty” Smith, Lateefah Williams and Paul Zukerberg, so that you can cast an educated ballot. The need for knowledge is critical, as the Attorney General’s office has the potential to touch all of our lives.

The Attorney General is the District’s chief law enforcer and oversees more than 300 attorneys at the Office of the Attorney General (“OAG”) who represent the City in state and federal court. Attorneys from the OAG represent the City in personal injury cases brought against the District, defend the City in breach of contract actions brought by City contractors, enforce child support orders, defend the City in DC agency employee lawsuits, and in many other instances where the District is involved in a lawsuit. In addition to this role in civil cases, the Office of the Attorney General is also involved in criminal matters and has the responsibility to charge and prosecute juvenile offenders who are arrested in the District.

Now, more than ever, we must pay attention to the practices and policies of the office tasked with prosecuting our youth. In 2011, there were 3,464 arrests of youth in the District and more than 42% of these were for non-violent misdemeanors. It is the Office of the Attorney General that has the discretion to pursue these arrests as full-scale prosecutions. Moreover, the Office of the Attorney General has the discretion to set policies for prosecuting these youth, determine charges, and make recommendations for the youth’s housing status pending trial.

Once a juvenile is brought before the judge for his or her initial hearing, the prosecutor makes the recommendation to either send the youth to a juvenile detention center, a group home, or to release the youth to his or her home pending trial. In 2011, DC taxpayers spent over $19 million on pre-sentencing, out-of-home placement alone. This number skyrockets to $75 million when the costs of post-sentencing detention facilities are included.

Despite legislation in a number of states prohibiting the practice, DC remains a jurisdiction that prosecutes youth aged 16 and over as adults for many crimes. A report issued by the Campaign for Youth Justice and DC Lawyers for Youth states that between 2007 and 2012 alone, 541 youth under the age of 18 were detained or incarcerated in adult facilities in DC. The report shows that the youth who were incarcerated in adult facilities in DC were disproportionately young men of color from low-income communities.

Unlike most jurisdictions, all DC youth in the juvenile court system brought before a judge are brought there in shackles, even in cases of non-violent first-time offenders. Processing through the juvenile justice system in DC starts for a youth in a holding cell as they await their first appearance, often for days, shackled before the judge and family, and placed before a prosecutor with broad discretion to control where they live for the thirty days before their trial.

All of this happens before any conviction is ever made. These youth are a critical stage in their development and we must make every effort to prevent that youth from self-identifying as a criminal and changing his or her mindset about the system and city in which we all live before it is too late.

For this reason, it is critical that we elect a leader who will act to reform the juvenile justice system and focus on restoration rather than incarceration. In a recent debate at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, the candidates discussed these issues.

Smitty Smith stated that he has made juvenile justice the top issue of his campaign, and pledged to promote diversion programs and to work with other agencies such as MPD, DC Public Schools, and DC Youth Rehabilitation Services to collect and share better data in order to analyze each offender individually.

Lateefah Williams stated that she supports juvenile justice reform and supports diversion programs that include mental health and educational opportunities. Moreover, Lateefah Williams was the first AG candidate to call for the end of shackling of youth.

Lorie Masters supports diversion programming and de-criminalizing minor offenses. She also seeks to establish a mentoring programming for OAG lawyers to get the prosecutors involved with the youth before they see them across the table in the court house.

Karl Racine, a former public defender, discussed his desire to get the prosecutors out of the office and into the community in order to interact with the youth.

Paul Zukerberg, an instrumental activist in the effort to recently de-criminalize marijuana, advocated for the further de-criminalization of minor offenses and wants to work to end the “school to prison pipeline.”

It is certainly true that the Office of the Attorney General is in charge of enforcing the law, not making the law. However, given the level of prosecutorial discretion afforded the City’s attorneys in criminal matters, we should all care about choosing the leader who is going to set office policy and agency priorities. Now is the time to research the candidates so that you can vote for the person who will best implement your vision for a fair and effective juvenile justice system. The District’s youth, who don’t yet get a vote, are counting on you.

Erica L. Marshall is an attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Board of Directors of Youth Court of the District of Columbia, a diversion program for first-time, non-violent juvenile offenders in the District. Michael Shank, who wrote this in his personal capacity, is a resident of Anacostia, DC.