DC Bid to Offer Compassion to People Convicted in Youth Draws Political Fire

    Despite its very liberal reputation and national-level voting record, the capital of what some call the “freest nation on earth” is also a haven of mass incarceration. 

    The District of Columbia has a state-sized population of about 700,000 residents, and it incarcerates about 1,153 people per 100,000. That means on a per capita basis, it incarcerates more people than Louisiana or Oklahoma⁠—or pretty much anywhere. In addition, racial disparities are extreme: While DC’s population is 46.4 percent Black and 45.6 percent white, Black people constitute a shocking 91 percent of people incarcerated in the territory.

    Many of DC’s 13 councilmembers recognize that the local incarceration rate is a dire problem, and that legalizing marijuana alone won’t solve it. Indeed, nine of them have sponsored or co-sponsored a council bill called the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019

    This legislation would allow people convicted when they were under 25 years old and serving indefinite prison sentences⁠—and who have already served at least 15 years⁠—to petition for a reduced sentence. Currently, DC law permits such review for people who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes. The change would impact over 500 currently incarcerated individuals.

    Many powerful people are angry at the mere suggestion of the change. You may be surprised to hear that the Washington Post’s editorial board is among them. On August 3 it published an editorial that echoed the worst carceral logic. Throwing around the most extreme examples of crimes committed by those affected⁠—who would, let’s remember, merely get the opportunity to argue their case for release, much later in life⁠—the board opined that “common sense may be losing out to enthusiasm for reform.” 

    Common sense would in fact note the reality that virtually all people who commit violent crimes when they’re young “age out” of it, according to criminologists and other experts. Neuroscientists now have a consensus that adolescent brain development continues until about age 25

    When long-term youth prisoners are released, they nearly always desist from committing new crimes

    Many EU countries, for example, take young adults out of the adult criminal justice system entirely, without experiencing consequent crime waves. Some US courts⁠—and even prosecutors⁠—are starting to catch up, but nowhere near fast enough to recalibrate the criminal justice system toward real rationality and restraint. 

    Trump’s US attorney for the district, Jessica K. Liu (like most of her colleagues), cannot be numbered among those slow reformers. She duly put out her own Department of Justice press release to stomp all over the concept of this profoundly reasonable and compassionate legislation. She claimed that “one in three will reoffend within three years of release.” What she conveniently failed to note is that the Bureau of Prisons data from which she drew this stat aggregate all so-called “reoffending”⁠—lumping together everything from smoking a joint to murder.

    Liu also urged the DC council to wait on how the people released under the current legislation fare⁠—despite recent examples in Maryland and Pennsylvania showing that when long-term youth prisoners are released, they nearly always desist from committing new crimes

    So what comes next, if the DC councilmembers are serious about learning from their human rights-respecting colleagues in those international embassies just down the street? 

    They will have to convince Mayor Muriel Bowser it is worth it. It might be a daunting task. Mayor Bowser recently vetoed a move to decriminalize fare evasion on the metro⁠—a stance that pegs her as more regressive than relatively-moderate district attorneys like Cy Vance in Manhattan. 

    They will have to dodge political missiles from people like Liu, who are emboldened by the Trump administration to politicize federal law enforcement

    And they will have to convince the general public that these reforms make sense⁠—and they do⁠—while DC is experiencing a spike in homicides.

    But no one ever said holding public office is a career move for the cowardly.

    Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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