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September 22, 2019

"Justice sometimes needs a do-over"

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post commentary authored by James Forman Jr. Here are excerpts:

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....

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....

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.

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.... 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.

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.

September 22, 2019 at 09:48 PM | Permalink

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