Legislation proposed by a member of the D.C. Council that could result in the early release of some prisoners convicted of violent crimes is being praised by criminal justice reform advocates but has faced criticism from the District’s top prosecutor and has left many victims and their families angry and concerned.
The proposal, which could come up for a vote in the fall, would allow certain inmates — including those who committed murder, sexual assault and child sex abuse — to be set free before they have completed their original sentence.
The new effort would further amend the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016. That law now gives people who committed serious crimes as children, and have served at least 15 years in prison, a chance to have their punishment reduced.
The latest amendment — which was introduced in February — would expand the pool of potentially eligible inmates to those who committed crimes when they were between the ages of 18 and 24. It would still require a D.C. Superior Court judge to consider if the inmate has taken responsibility for their crime, stayed out of trouble in prison, participated in education and vocational programs and “demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, and a fitness to reenter society.”
The idea behind the legislation is that children and young adults, whose brains aren’t fully mature, should not receive adult punishments of decades in prison.
“They have to show significant rehabilitation, have shown that they have been an ideal inmate and show that they want to earn to have this right to have their sentence reviewed,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the author of the legislation.
The push for sentencing changes come as many jurisdictions nationwide are looking at whether some inmates should be given a second chance, particularly those who were younger when they offended.
Since the original D.C. resentencing act became law two years ago, 17 people have been released or had their sentences reduced, all over prosecutors’ objections. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said 13 of them had been convicted of murder, two convicted of rape, one of armed robbery and one of armed kidnapping.
Both Allen and prosecutors say none of those released have been rearrested. Allen said some are employed, others are seeking jobs and many are involved with youth groups to deter violence in the city.
“They now want to come home and repair the harm they caused,” Allen said. “That type of action and that type of work can lead to not only a just and fair city, but also a safer city.”
But Jessie K. Liu, the U.S. Attorney for the District, said the laws and amendments were being passed too quickly and did not give enough time to determine how well those who have been released were adjusting to life outside prison. More importantly, she said, there has not been enough time to determine if they will reoffend. Liu said it takes about three years to determine if a person will recidivate.
“What concerns me is we don’t have any data on how this is working. How are the released inmates performing when they return to the community?” Liu said. “We need more time to study this. Why is the Council in such a rush to expand this?”
She said people who would be eligible are “the absolute most violent and dangerous offenders.”
According to statistics from the U.S. attorney’s office, 583 prison inmates would qualify to seek the sentence reduction solely based on their age at time of the crime in D.C. and their years in prison. Some 85 percent of those inmates, Liu said, were convicted of murder, voluntary manslaughter, first-degree sex abuse and child sex abuse.
When inmates petition for resentencing, a judge can order their release, reduce their sentence, or reject the petition.
One point of contention — or confusion — between Allen and Liu is whether judges are to consider the actual crime itself in deciding whether someone should be resentenced.
Liu said the legislation does not call for judges to consider the gravity or details of the inmate’s crime. But Allen insists judges can consider the crime, hear from the victims and their families and review letters from prosecutors and mental health experts involved in the case. What the judge should not do, Allen said, is determine if the crime was too heinous to warrant a resentencing.
In a July 19 letter to Judge Michael O’Keefe obtained by The Washington Post, Allen took issue with the judge’s recent denial of a resentencing petition. The inmate, Rodney C. Williams, now 54, was arrested in 1982 and convicted the following year of multiple burglaries and sexual assaults, including the rape of a 9-year-old girl, according to court records.
Allen wrote he believed O’Keefe relied “heavily on the circumstances surrounding the original offenses, rather than evidence of [Williams’s] rehabilitation and conduct while incarcerated for the past 37 years.”
O’Keefe declined to comment. But one judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the legislation allows judges to consider “any other information the court deems relevant to its decision.”
When Allen introduced the amendment, seven other members of the council offered their support, including Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) co-sponsored the amendment with Allen.
McDuffie said he supports the amendment as part of the move to give consideration to people who have served prison time and shown they have been rehabilitated.
“Many of these individuals who were convicted of crimes were very young, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that punishment includes opportunity for rehabilitation,” he said.
Cheh agreed the city should be looking at re-examining sentences of those individuals who were youths at the time of their crimes. But she admitted she was surprised to learn many of the inmates who would be most affected by this amendment were violent offenders. “That does give me some pause,” she said.
Among prosecutors, Liu said she was also concerned the legislation could mean allowing the early release of offenders when violent crime in the District is rising.
Anyone released, Liu said, would likely return to neighborhoods where their victim or victim’s family members live and where crime is already high.
Allen said he was “surprised” Liu’s office is against the resentencings. Prosecutors, Allen said, are supposed to seek accountability and rehabilitation. Anyone who is resentenced, he said, will have had both.
“They have been found guilty and have been serving time,” Allen said. “The question being asked now is, have they gone through successful rehabilitation, and do they have something positive to offer the community.”
Liu and Allen agreed that crime victims could be greatly affected by any resentencing.
Allen said social workers and victim advocates in the U.S. attorney’s office would be designated to contact the victims and their families whenever an inmate applies for resentencing so they can testify or present a written testimony to the judge. But Liu’s office has argued finding those people is often challenging.
One woman who was sexually assaulted in her Capitol Hill home in 2003 broke into tears when she learned of the effort.
The woman recounted how her attackers, then 16 and 21, armed with a rifle and a knife, repeatedly raped her and then robbed her and her boyfriend. Each was sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison.
The younger assailant has applied for resentencing and has a hearing scheduled for January in front of Judge Judith Smith. And if the new amendment passes, the woman’s other attacker could also apply.
The woman, now 43, said she was more angry that she was not notified of the legislation than she was of the possibility of the two being released. “If they have truly changed and become better people and used the time in prison in a positive way to turn their life around, I’m a huge advocate of that,” she said.
What most concerns her, she said, was the feeling her attackers “have more rights” than her. “That,” she said, “really bothers me.”