James Forman Jr. is the author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” which won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Two years ago, I wrote a book detailing how African American leaders in the District and elsewhere helped, sometimes unwittingly, to usher in the mass-incarceration era. Many black judges, mayors and legislators who served during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s supported unforgiving criminal laws or imposed draconian sentences in the belief that they were advancing the public good. But now, surveying the devastation that mass incarceration has inflicted on America’s black communities, they’d like to take back some of those votes and sentencing decisions.

The prior generation of public officials doesn’t get do-overs, but the current generation can chart a different path. One way to do that is through “second look” laws, which allow judges to reduce long sentences after prisoners have served a specified period of time. The D.C. Council is considering the Second Look Amendment Act, which builds on the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016 (IRAA). That law allows people convicted of serious crimes before they turned 18 to ask judges to review their sentences after they have served 15 years. The proposed law expands eligibility for sentence review to all those who committed crimes before age 25 and have served at least 15 years in prison.

AD
AD

The core idea behind this is that everybody — including people in prison — grows and matures with time. Social science research shows that most people who commit violent crimes do so while they are young.

I teach in prison, and my students are living proof that people can change. My seminars are full of incarcerated men who committed violent crimes as teens or young adults. Their violence didn't spring from nothing: Most of my students were victims, too, often at the hands of family, neighbors or people they mistakenly called friends. Despite their histories, many of my students have found ways to resurrect their lives while incarcerated. They long to atone for the harm they've caused and to contribute to their families and communities.

Of course, some people in prison remain a threat. That’s why D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act would not give judges carte blanche to shorten every sentence that comes before them. Instead, the law instructs them to consider a long list of factors, including evidence of maturity and rehabilitation, medical and mental health reports, prison disciplinary records, victim impact statements and the views of the U.S. attorney’s office.

AD
AD

The Second Look Amendment Act offers a promising corrective to the harsh — and ineffective — practices once commonplace in courthouses across America. But while the law has the support of the majority of the city’s elected officials, the unelected U.S. attorney is leading a campaign to scuttle it.

I’m not surprised by this opposition. Beginning with the Reagan administration, the U.S. attorney’s office has reliably supported laws that would send more D.C. residents to prison. In the 1990s, for example, the U.S. attorney pushed for harsher marijuana laws and pretext-stop policing, a tactic targeting black drivers for traffic stops to search their cars for evidence of more serious offenses. Most notoriously, when the D.C. Council considered eliminating racially discriminatory mandatory minimums for drug offenses, the U.S. attorney fought to keep those laws.

But I am disappointed by the office’s willingness to mislead the public in making its case. Consider one of its central criticisms of IRAA and the Second Look Amendment Act: It says that the laws eliminate a judge’s ability to consider the nature of the crime when deciding whether to reduce a sentence. In fact, the laws do nothing of the kind. Though a change to IRAA this year removed “the nature and circumstances of the offense” from a list of factors that judges must consider, nothing in the law prevents judges from engaging in such consideration, and several provisions still in force effectively require them to do just that.

AD
AD

Don’t take my word for it. The U.S. attorney’s office has made this very point in court.

Last month, when prosecutors opposed a sentence reduction in the case of United States v. Momolu Stewart, the U.S. attorney’s office told the judge that he must consider the defendant’s crime because it is “essential context for evaluating other factors that remain relevant under the IRAA.”

It appears that the U.S. attorney’s office wants to have it both ways. In court, prosecutors tell judges they are logically bound to consider the crime, while in the press and community meetings, they frighten voters by telling them that the law doesn’t allow that.

The Second Look Amendment Act gives the D.C. Council a chance to restore a measure of fairness to a criminal system often lacking it. Standing up to the U.S. attorney’s office may not be easy, but the D.C. Council did so when it rejected that office’s scare tactics and eliminated mandatory minimums for drug offenses in the 1990s. That decision now is universally admired. If the council is willing to embrace reason over fearmongering again, I am confident the Second Look Amendment Act will be recognized as another proud accomplishment.

Read more:

AD
AD