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A veto-proof majority of the D.C. City Council passed a bill to open early release to people convicted of crimes they committed before they were 25, saying they deserve the chance for rehabilitation. Victims’ advocates are skeptical.
Incarcerated people from the nation's capital who were young adults when they were convicted of crimes, including violent ones, may soon see a chance for early release.
This week, a veto-proof majority of the city council in Washington, D.C. voted to approve a measure that would allow incarcerated people convicted of a crime before the age of 25 to ask a judge to reconsider their sentence after they’ve served a minimum of 15 years. Many of the people this applies to are serving time for murder, sex crimes, robberies, and felony drug offenses. The Second Look Amendment Act, passed as part of a larger public safety package, is an expansion of a 2017 law that allows for early release of people convicted as adults even though they were younger than 18 at the time of the crime.
Since that law passed, none of the 55 people who have been granted reduced sentences have reoffended, according to attorneys tracking the cases. Many of those cases involved defendants convicted of murders committed when they were 16 or 17, but are now in their mid-40s.
The new legislation is expected to affect about 300 people who were convicted as young adults, said bill sponsor Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the council’s judiciary committee. (The U.S. Department of Justice last year estimated a higher number of 583.)
The legislation was praised by criminal justice reform groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which said the council’s decision aligns with a growing body of research into effectively rehabilitating young offenders. “The District has set a model for other states to follow,” FAMM president Kevin Ring said in a statement. “People change and our laws need to reflect that.”
Next, the bill will go to Mayor Muriel Bowser, who disagreed with the bill but did not say she would veto it. All laws passed in the District are also subject to Congressional review before they officially go into effect.
The measure faced opposition from victim advocates and the families of some murder victims in the nation’s capital, who said they should be more included in release decisions. Councilmember Mary Cheh proposed an amendment that would require judges to more strongly consider families’ opinions in release decisions, but that language was rejected by the broader council.
Bowser said during a press briefing this week that she wished council members had adopted Cheh’s amendment, adding that she doesn’t support the bill. Many of the public safety bills passed by the council near the end of its term merit “continued attention to see if they are measures that are going to make our city safer,” she said. The legislation was also criticized by prosecutors and the city’s police department. Outgoing police chief Peter Newsham said some crime victims are “unaware that this is even going on.”
Several council members disputed the claim that victims weren’t being prioritized, with Allen promising that “the victim’s voice is given the greatest weight” in sentence reconsideration. “We’re not traveling back in time to relitigate the guilt of an individual for the offense they committed,” he said. “They committed it. They’re guilty. That part’s not in dispute. What the Second Look Act is trying to look at is the sentencing and whether an individual is a risk to public safety or not.”
The D.C. bill joins a growing movement of state legislation to rethink how society should deal with young people who commit crimes, even violent ones. Illinois passed a similar bill last year that allows those who were younger than 21 when they committed crimes to apply for early release after 10 years, or after 20 years for violent crimes.
In recent years, several state legislatures have also considered “raise the age” laws to ensure that people who are on the cusp of legal adulthood—16- and 17-year-olds—are sentenced as juveniles rather than adults. In July, Vermont became the first state to allow 18-year-olds to be tried as juveniles rather than adults. In 2022, the state will raise that age to 19, and in 2024, will raise it again to 20. The Massachusetts state legislature has been studying the possibility of trying 21-year-olds in juvenile court.
Proponents of changing conviction and sentencing standards for young people often cite emerging neurological research that has found that the brain doesn’t fully develop until 25. Before that, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that deals with impulse control—isn’t fully developed, meaning young people may not fully understand the consequences of their actions. Researchers have deemed the period from 18 to 25 as “emerging adulthood” for this reason.
Justice reform advocates say handing long sentences to young adults saddles them with a lifetime of education, housing, and education barriers. They also cite research that has shown lowered recidivism among young offenders who go through the juvenile court system.
The D.C. City Council raised all these points, and brought up additional concerns around the racial makeup of the D.C. public safety system, which skews disproportionately Black. Several council members cited the need to reduce the number of people D.C. houses in prisons. In 2016, D.C. had one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, behind only Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said that the new legislation “moves the District in the right direction towards ending mass incarceration,” and continued that it would repair “the damage done by decades of harsh sentences and tough-on-crime approaches that have destroyed Black and brown communities and filled our prisons, while failing to make us any safer.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.