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D.C. Council weighs controversial measure that would allow hundreds of inmates to seek release from prison after 15 years of incarceration

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) attends a council meeting.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) attends a council meeting. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The proposed expansion of a District law that gives certain prison inmates a chance at early release has broad support of advocates for criminal justice revision while sparking pushback from critics concerned about the return of violent offenders to communities.

The Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act allows inmates to seek early release if they were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes and have spent at least 15 years behind bars. The D.C. Council is set Tuesday to conduct the first of two votes on an amendment that would grow the group of eligible inmates to include those who were as old as 24 when they committed their offenses. The second vote is scheduled for Dec. 15.

Supporters of the legislation cite studies showing the brains of teenagers and young adults are not fully mature until age 25. They argue that those who commit crimes at younger ages should not receive adult punishments of decades in prison.

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Since the law went into effect in 2017, 53 inmates — the majority of whom were convicted of murder — had their sentences reduced to time served by a D.C. Superior Court judge, according to the latest data from the U.S. attorney’s office. To be considered for early release, inmates must stay out of trouble in prison and show efforts to better themselves behind bars. They may also present documentation of childhood trauma or mental illness.

None of the people who were granted early release have reoffended, and many of them now work as youth violence prevention counselors in the city, said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who has championed the law.

Five inmates had their petitions denied. One inmate had his parole date moved up.

Federal prosecutors in the District say the expansion would send the wrong message to victims and their families, who could lose faith that the punishments imposed by judges will stick.

“A mother will say to us, ‘Is this all the city thinks my son’s life is worth, 15 years?’ So yes, this is exactly the message we believe many victims and survivors take from this,” said Laura Bach, deputy chief of the homicide section in the U.S. attorney’s office.

David Gorman, who is head of the section, believes increasing the age immediately to 24 is too drastic and suggests instead the city might opt to stagger the increase over the years.

“In a homicide case, you are telling the community that 15 years is the appropriate sentence. That’s what we are concerned about,” Gorman said.

Prosecutor Mervin A. Bourne Jr., who oversees the witness assistance unit at the U.S. attorney’s office, said that while the effort may seek to address concerns about overincarceration of Black men, lawmakers should not lose sight of the fact that the majority of victims in the city also are Black men and Black women.

Prosecutors say that since judges have granted the early release for the majority of those inmates who have applied so far, they believe the same will happen with the older group. They said nearly half the defendants charged in homicides in the city are accused of committing those crimes between the ages of 18 and 24.

The prosecutors said they also worry early release of people convicted in sexual crimes or serial assault cases could cause more pain and anxiety for victims.

As with the initial law, the bill only applies to crimes that were charged under District, and not federal, statutes.

Allen said that critics have been engaged in a campaign of fearmongering hoping to get the amendment killed and that judges carefully weigh who can safely return to the community.

“Every case is not going to be successful. Not every person is ready to come home after 15 years. But there are people who are,” Allen said.

Allen initially proposed expanding the age component in March 2019. Prosecutors, along with some residents, then blasted the proposed amendment, and the effort is only now coming to a vote, largely due to delays because of covid-19.

More than 70 D.C. residents gather at U.S. attorney’s office to hear details of new amendment that calls for early release of inmates

Prosecutors say some 500 current prison inmates would be eligible to apply if the expansion is successful. Allen said there were only about 300 who would be eligible.

Allen said the law would give judges the ability to prioritize applications based on the age of the applicant and years incarcerated. If it passes, Allen said he hopes judges will give priority to inmates who are 60 or older and have spent decades in prison.

The amendment would require applicants to show evidence of rehabilitation, have a prison record free of major offenses and prove they would no longer be a threat to society.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said that to win her support, a provision must be added that would specifically require judges to weigh the details of the crime. This week, during the bill’s initial vote by the committee of the judiciary and public safety, which Allen chairs, Cheh was the sole member to vote against it in a 5-to-1 decision.

“The circumstances of the crime should be considered,” Cheh said in an interview. “There is a moral aspect about the behavior of the defendant in general that has to be at least taken into account.”

Advocates say the law has given renewed hope and encouragement for inmates who thought they would never be released, inspiring them to become active participants in their own rehabilitation while incarcerated.

Allen said in the three years since the law was passed, the city has learned a few lessons that were used to draft the new legislation.

He said the legislation now has language that says judges “may” consider the details of the crime in their decisions.

Also, Allen said his office recognized the challenges prosecutors had in trying to locate victims and their families to inform them of petitions for early release, so the bill calls for $200,000 a year to be allocated to a crime advocacy agency that counsels crime victims and survivors. The bill would allow the agency to help notify the victims and their families in the cases where the defendant has applied for the sentence reduction. The agency will also attend hearings and help victims and families who wish to submit impact statements to the court.

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