The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. considers a revamp to its criminal justice system based on science

A view of the D.C. Superior Court building in downtown Washington. (Keith L. Alexander/The Washington Post)

Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project.

D.C. officials are staring down a stark reality: Our criminal justice system is a mass incarceration mess. Seven in 10 imprisoned Washingtonians are serving sentences of a decade or longer. These lengthy punishments do little to help public safety — and can even exacerbate crime.

We need a new approach, one that doesn’t rely on ineffective strategies such as throwing people behind bars for decades. Fortunately, lawmakers are considering a bill that would modernize our criminal code and boost public safety. A research-based upgrade that is long overdue, the Revised Criminal Code Act would also scale back excessive sentences.

The data reveal how extreme D.C.’s criminal justice system is. More than 1 in 4 imprisoned people from D.C. have already served at least 15 years.

The racial statistics are even more alarming. Though slightly fewer than half of D.C. residents are Black, a whopping 96 percent of people serving sentences beyond 15 years are Black men.

Make no mistake: Extreme sentences don’t just affect the people in prison; their impact cascades across the entire community. When fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, caretakers, friends and children go to prison for so long, it can tear communities apart and leave people without the support they need to thrive — or even survive.

Importantly, it’s been shown time and time again that extreme sentences do little to improve public safety. They don’t discourage people from committing crimes — because people do not expect to be caught and often commit crime with their judgment compromised by drugs or alcohol. People also generally age out of crime, with recidivism rates falling measurably after about a decade of imprisonment. Indeed, research shows that people who committed even the most serious crimes are unlikely to commit new crimes after serving a long sentence.

That’s because people change over time. Incarcerated people, particularly those who were convicted at young ages, often experience immense growth in prison, despite the limited support they receive while incarcerated. People in prison frequently educate themselves, become more mature and take responsibility for the mistakes they have made. And when they are released, they can serve as the most powerful mentors for stopping others from going down the same path. Many of D.C.’s violence interrupters, for example, were formerly incarcerated.

In many cases, people who have served lengthy prison terms are virtually unrecognizable from who they were when they entered prison. Consider the experience of Gene Downing. In 2000, at age 19, he and a group of friends committed an armed robbery that led to the victim’s murder. Downing was sentenced to 82 years to life.

In prison, Downing changed. He focused on his education. He received and provided mentorship. He was determined to earn his freedom and to become a positive role model for his daughter.

Downing was released last November thanks to D.C.’s Second Look law. The reform allows judges to re-sentence people after they have served 15 years for a crime committed under age 25. Downing is now a vital part of the youth and community initiatives organized by Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. A leader in the criminal justice reform community and spoken-word performer, he is a devoted father who is finally able to parent his daughter at home.

The judge who re-sentenced Downing considered him to be a rare success. But Downing says that, during his 21 years in prison, he encountered many others who seized opportunities for growth and have become outstanding candidates for release, regardless of their age at the time of the crime. “People like me are not a majority, but there are more like me there. I’m not one of a kind.”

Our criminal justice system needs a revamp that is based on science, not decades-old, flawed tactics. The Revised Criminal Code Act, originally developed by the Criminal Code Reform Commission, an independent D.C. government agency, is a big step in the right direction.

For one, the bill would eliminate nearly all mandatory minimum sentences, which have contributed heavily to D.C.’s sky-high incarceration rate. In fact, the American Bar Association recommends nixing mandatory sentencing for all cases so that judges could consider the individual circumstances of each case and tailor punishments accordingly. Even for the most serious crimes, sentences should reflect the unique facts of each case.

D.C.’s modernization bill would also set maximum sentences at 45 years and enable people who committed their crime at age 25 and up to have their sentence reviewed by a judge after serving 20 years — an important step toward curbing our reliance on extreme punishments. Crucially, this does not mean that every person would get a shortened sentence. But people who can prove that they have changed and would be upstanding citizens would have a second chance at freedom.

We have a prime opportunity to reduce mass incarceration and make better investments in public safety. Let’s get it done.