In February, 3L Tierra Copeland participated in the D.C. Justice Lab’s Safety Summit 2022: Prevention over Punishment. This Black-led policy forum and safety summit called for a range of evidence-based, community-responsive policy changes that also reduce violence in the D.C. area.
Copeland’s remarks at the event sought to educate the public about a somewhat lesser-known area of policing and prosecution – youth “status offenses.” Status offenses are non-criminal behaviors that are unlawful only because they are committed by a minor. They include acts such as staying out past curfew, repeatedly missing school, running away from home or disobeying guardians.
View the Safety Summit in its entirety on the D.C. Justice Lab Facebook page; Copeland joins the event at 1:11:21.
Copeland’s comments at the Safety Summit, recommending decriminalization of such activities, were informed by research she began while a student in the UDC Law Youth Justice Clinic. That work has led to a UDC Law Review essay authored by several law students and Professor Mae Quinn in their individual capacities. It will be published in the coming weeks. The D.C. Justice Lab founding Executive Director Patrice Sulton and staff attorney Naike Savain also served as contributing co-authors to the essay. D.C. Justice Lab will share the document through its website as an accessible educational resource for the public. Sulton will be the keynote speaker at the UDC Law Review Symposium April 2. Register for the event.
In 2020, the D.C. Juvenile Justice Advisory Group (JJAG) – a quasi-government advisory group to Mayor Bowser – released a report that called for removing status offenses from the criminal legal system and replacing prosecution with research-informed methods to support youth in need. Students from YJC and Professor Quinn attended JJAG meetings as interested community members and were persuaded by JJAG’s recommendations to rethink traditional approaches to youth status offenses.
Through their own research, Copeland and the other student authors – including Tatyana Hopkins, Mary Brody, Jamie Adams, Olivia Chick and Ashley Taylor – helped shed further light on the ways in which status offense policing and prosecution historically has harmed young people, especially Black youth. They identified alternative approaches to engaging children who may be simply enacting age-appropriate, youthful risk-taking when they stay out late or skip class. In the end, the group recommended that local stakeholders as well as jurisdictions around the country move away from criminalizing such ordinary adolescent behaviors.
Copeland said of the impact of this work, “As a Black woman, it’s important to me that Black boys and girls are given a fair shot as they’re maturing into adulthood and that their interactions with police are as limited as possible. Negative interactions with the police and the justice system can shape their perspectives of themselves and their place in their communities for years to come.”
Beyond publicly disseminating the co-authored paper, the D.C. Justice Lab has decided to use it as part of its advocacy efforts to support a legislative agenda to improve public safety in D.C., as proposed at the Safety Summit. The Lab is currently supporting several existing bills before the D.C. Council as well as developing several new policy proposals for consideration – including the decriminalization of status offenses.