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Push to allow some violent criminals a chance at early release causes U.S. attorney for District to come out fighting

Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, seen in 2018, is pushing back against a D.C. effort to expand a law that allows some violent offenders to seek early release from prison.
Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, seen in 2018, is pushing back against a D.C. effort to expand a law that allows some violent offenders to seek early release from prison. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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A little more than a month before President Trump selected Jessie K. Liu as the District’s U.S. attorney in 2017, a new city law gave dozens of inmates who had committed serious crimes as teenagers a chance at early release.

A year later, as Liu was making her way around the city to meet with District residents and police, council members amended that youth incarceration law, reducing from 20 to 15 years the amount of prison time someone must serve before being eligible to petition a court for release.

Then, in March, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the D.C. Council’s judiciary and public safety committee, proposed a third iteration of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, part of the city’s growing efforts on criminal justice reform. Allen’s amendment calls for expanding the group of potentially eligible inmates to people who committed their crimes not just as teenagers but as adults as old as 24.

Liu’s prosecutors have opposed every petition for immediate early release filed under the law so far, but the latest push to broaden the law has prompted her to launch an unusual public campaign against the effort. It is a shift for the city’s top federal prosecutor, who has typically taken a more behind-the-scenes approach.

“There is some truth that I have been more outspoken on this issue than other issues,” Liu said in an interview at her office. “I wanted to come into this job, and it was a new job for me. I did want to sit back and learn everything I could before I started saying too much. I’m genuinely concerned about the effect this would have on public safety.”

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

But Liu said she thinks local lawmakers are rushing to expand the law without allowing time to determine how well those already released are adjusting to life outside prison — and to assess whether they are likely to reoffend.

“This measure, if passed, would go further than any other jurisdiction in this country that has enacted criminal justice reform,” Liu said. “I just think there needs to be more studies done.”

D.C. is considering giving more prisoners a chance for early release. Prosecutors are pushing back.

In recent weeks, Liu has directed prosecutors to contact victims of violent crimes to tell them and their families about the proposed amendment, encouraging them to contact council members and express any concerns before the measure comes up for a vote as early as this fall, said Kadia Koroma, Liu’s spokeswoman.

Liu plans to host a town hall on Thursday in her offices at 555 Fourth St. NW, where she will lead a discussion about the amendment, her spokeswoman confirmed. Her office sent out more than 300 invitations to residents and elected neighborhood representatives on various email discussion groups around the city.

That meeting will come weeks after Liu’s office released a statement with the headline: “New Bill Seeks to Make Over 500 Violent Criminals (Including Many Rapists and Murderers) Immediately Eligible for Early Release.”

Supporters of the bill said Liu’s Aug. 9 news release — which also included Allen’s email address and office phone number — was a sensationalized attempt to frighten residents without offering balance.

“The language used in that release is fearmongering,” said Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a national, nonprofit justice reform group. “It’s inappropriate for a public official to put statements out like that, because it doesn’t encourage or allow for an informed and balanced policy discussion.”

Backers of Allen’s amendment countered Liu’s message by asking people to sign an online petition in support of the bill to send to the council. Schindler said they have gathered about 700 signatures.

Liu’s assertion that more than 500 prison inmates would be immediately eligible for release, her critics argue, was misleading because there are more than a dozen criteria that a D.C. Superior Court judge must use to determine whether an inmate can be granted early release. In addition to letters from victims and their families, prison personnel and psychological reports, judges will also review whether the person has been rehabilitated while in prison, has taken educational or vocational classes, and has shown remorse and stayed out of trouble behind bars.

Liu denies that the news release used divisive language and says it was accurate.

“They would be eligible for release,” Liu said. “Of course they would have to file motions in court and the court would rule on it. It’s a semantics game here, really.”

A judge can order an inmate’s release, reduce a sentence or reject the petition. Those whose petitions are rejected can reapply every two years, with a maximum of three applications.

Since the law was enacted, 18 people have been released and one person’s sentence was reduced, making him eligible for parole. Only one applicant was rejected. The U.S. attorney’s office said all the prisoners had been convicted of violent crimes, including murder, rape and armed robbery.

None of those released have been rearrested or violated probation, officials said. All but one are employed, and one is job hunting, said Schindler, whose justice reform group has been working with the applicants. Also, most of those released are working as mentors in various city programs encouraging youths to avoid similar mistakes, Schindler said.

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Karl A. Racine, a former defense attorney and the District’s first elected attorney general, said District political leaders were elected by residents to be their voice on various issues. “This is what democracy is all about,” Racine said. He said the legislation “not only makes sense, but in the interest of fairness in regards to at least check to see if someone has demonstrated sufficient rehabilitation to be released.”

Some supporters noted that federal prosecutors sometimes offer deals to defendants who cooperate in other cases. Most recently, the office asked a federal judge to reduce the life sentence of the 1980s drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III in exchange for his 20 years of providing information to prosecutors in drug cases around the country.

“Rayful Edmond has served more than 30 years in prison, a lot longer than 15 years. Individuals who cooperate with the government can get certain sentencing benefits,” Liu said. Edmond, whose petition is pending, was not convicted of any violent crimes, she added.

Prosecutors seek early release for notorious D.C. drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III

Liu said one of her biggest concerns is whether victims or their families were given enough information about the proposed change. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) echoed that concern and said the council should consider another public hearing.

“From what I understand, there weren’t a lot of victim advocates [involved in] the discussion. I think there is more work to do,” Bowser said.

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham also called for another public hearing. He praised Liu for rallying against the amendment.

“This is very scary to us that work in law enforcement,” Newsham said. “I can only assume that she is having the same sleepless nights that I am having about this becoming law in the District of Columbia.”

Allen said there are no plans for a second public hearing, but he continues to get input from people on both sides of the issue.

“These are tough topics,” he said. “We are changing an institution that has been around for generations. This is not easy. There will be ongoing discussions about for a while.”

Allen said a seven-hour hearing examining the amendment on March 26 included several crime victims and representatives from victims rights groups. He said no one from the U.S. attorney’s office spoke.

Liu said she did not testify in March because her office was still investigating the ramifications of the amendment. She did submit a written response.

Allen will not attend Liu’s meeting, he said, because “I was not invited.” He said he hoped prosecutors at the meeting provide “truthful and accurate” information on the amendment, unlike Liu’s “approach of fearmongering.”

At a time when the District, particularly neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, are experiencing a surge in violent crime, individuals in Liu’s office expressed fears that crime in those areas could rise even more if the individuals are released. One of the questions surfacing is whether Allen’s constituents, who live in the area bounded by bounded by Penn Quarter, the Southwest Waterfront and Capitol Hill, would be affected.

“If I had to guess or suspect,” Liu said, “relatively few will be going back to live in Ward 6.”

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