OP-ED: No, D.C.’s criminal justice reform efforts don’t go too far

By Karl A. Racine and Councilmember Charles Allen
Charles Allen, a Democrat, represents Ward 6 on the D.C. Council. Karl A. Racine, a Democrat, is the D.C. attorney general.
Op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Post

Prison watch tower

The District’s incarceration rate is higher than any state in the nation — and any country. In large part, that’s owed to a period of excessive mandatory-minimum-sentencing guidelines, which disproportionately targeted people of color. In recent years, D.C. residents, speaking through their elected officials, have made it clear they want to address this problem. That’s why the D.C. Council enacted resentencing legislation for rehabilitated people who committed a serious crime.

The U.S. attorney’s office and an editorial in The Post voiced concerns. Their fears are overblown and unfounded. The District’s resentencing efforts are based on smart public-safety policy and fairness, rooted in data, research and science. Contemporary neuroscience research shows areas of the brain that influence judgment and decision-making continue forming well into one’s 20s. Young people are developmentally different from adults. That’s why cognitive researchers widely refer to the ages of 18 to 25 as “emerging adulthood.” It’s also why the modern Supreme Court has asked states to reconsider the harsher sentences given out decades ago, especially for juveniles.

Scientific studies continue to show most people age out of criminal behavior in their 20s. Younger people are more prone to risk-taking, vulnerable to peer pressure and unlikely to contemplate the long-term consequences of their actions while their brains are still developing. This suggests someone who committed a crime, even a serious one, in his or her 20s will not necessarily be a danger to society 15 years later.

These facts informed the D.C. Council as it followed the will of District residents in enacting safe and effective criminal- and juvenile-justice reforms. The original Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) of 2016 provided deserving men and women convicted as teenagers a chance to have a judge review their sentence after they served 20 years. The council later amended the act to make individuals eligible after serving 15 years. Other states have taken similar reform-minded and evidence-based steps, to great success.

Indeed, of the 18 people released in the District, none has reoffended. They have much to offer to their communities, becoming mentors, violence interrupters , government employees, public speakers, poets, college students and entrepreneurs.

Halim Flowers was sentenced to two life sentences when he was 17. While incarcerated, Flowers wrote 11 books, founded his own publishing company and took college classes through the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program. He was released five months ago under the IRAA and is mentoring young people. He was recently named a Halcyon Arts Lab fellow and a 2019 Echoing Green fellow, a competitive, nationwide fellowship focused on ending social and environmental injustices.

The amendment to the IRAA under consideration by the D.C. Council, the Second Look Amendment Act, continues to draw from the science, widening eligibility to individuals who committed a crime at age 24 or younger.

Though many will be eligible to apply, each petitioner faces the high burden of proving rehabilitation to demonstrate that he or she no longer is a danger to the community. Not everyone who applies will get resentencing. As was the case under existing law, an independent judge reviews all the evidence — psychological evaluations, behavior in prison and likelihood of not committing more crime — to determine whether to grant a petitioner a resentencing. Judges are uniquely equipped to make the best decision as to whether an individual poses a risk to public safety, which their resentencing track record in the District reaffirms.

The law lays out 11 guidelines for judges to consider in evaluating the full rehabilitation of a person. These facts are essential parts of the requirements the judges must consider when they hear evidence on the impact to the victim or exercise their broad authority to consider all relevant evidence. We would not approve any measures that strip judges of wide discretion to consider the victims’ experience or stifle the victims’ ability to be heard.

Nationwide, sentencing reductions are granted for good reasons. The IRAA and its amendments offer them for one that should give us all hope: rehabilitation. It is vital to our health and public safety that we foster and reward those who rehabilitate from a serious offense. We should not be dissuaded by the same echoes of fear that gave us mass incarceration. More of the same won’t solve that problem, but following the science, research and data might.