Trump’s Department of Justice Interferes in Local DC Government, Playing on Racist Stereotypes to Suggest Council’s Second Look Bill will Make DC Less Safe

“I can’t undo what I did 24 years ago, but I can devote my life to making DC safer.” Tyrone Walker, DC resident

On Friday afternoon, the Trump-appointed US Attorney (USAO) for the District of Columbia released a statement strongly criticizing both a local Washington, DC law and pending legislation that would amend it, the Second Look Act. Unfortunately, the statement ignores research and data on criminal and juvenile justice issues, instead leaning on outrageous, misguided and race-based fearmongering to frighten District residents.

Harkening back to the “tough on crime” days of the 1990s, the USAO’s headline warns of rapists and murderers being released en masse to threaten us all – disingenuously suggesting that over 500 people will suddenly flood the streets of DC the moment the Second Look Act passes. The USAO predicts that 1 in 3 will reoffend, but provides no data to back up this claim.  Crime is a young person’s pursuit and the research is clear that the population eligible for review, all of whom have served at least 15 years and will be in their late 30s and early 40s, are at exceptionally low risk of reoffending, contrary to the claims of the USAO.

Under current law, someone who committed a crime before the age of 18, and has served at least 15 years, is entitled to a meaningful review of their case by a judge. If they have demonstrated transformational change, the judge has the option to modify the sentence. 18 people have returned to the community since the law went into effect in 2017. They are in the community, working, acting as mentors and violence interrupters, and working hard to make their neighborhoods safer. They are not a threat to public safety, they are our most important asset as change agents and violence interrupters.

The bill up for consideration when the session resumes in September does precisely two things: 1) it raises the age of eligibility from 18 to 25 for those seeking review of a lengthy sentence, and 2) it says that people brought back to the District for related proceedings shall be held in the District’s Central Treatment Facility. In other words, it builds upon the success of the existing policy and follows the lead of California, which provides the possibility of a parole hearing after 15 years for those who had previously been sentenced to life when they were 25 or younger. More than 200 people have been released under that law and nobody has been reconvicted or returned to prison since it took effect.

The USAO also conflates current practice with the proposed legislation. For example, they claim that the new law will not allow a judge to consider the nature of the offense when deciding whether to reduce a sentence after someone has been incarcerated for at least 15 years. That is false. The current offense can be considered, but it cannot be the only rationale for denying release. This is consistent with best practices in release decision making across the country. The fact is that the USAO did not register opposition to the current practice of judicial review and did not testify in March against the pending expansion of the law, when 14 panels of people previously released under the law, family members, scholars, lawyers, service providers, and residents came out in support of the proposed law. The bill has the support of the Mayor, the locally elected DC Attorney General Karl Racine, and a majority of the DC Council. The Mayor has signed each previous version into law, with unanimous votes in support of the previous versions.

The USAO’s threatening language is reminiscent of the demonization in the ‘90s of young black males in the justice system, and consistent with language from this President. “It’s an easy—though outrageous and horrible—soundbite to use racialized language and shout ‘rapists and murderers go free’ – it’s much harder to work together to find real solutions to our country’s epidemic of poverty, violence and mass incarceration,” said Justice Policy Institute Executive Director Marc Schindler.

Recent scientific evidence on adolescent and young adult development and neuroscience shows that certain areas of the brain—particularly those affecting judgment and decision-making—are continuing to develop well beyond age 18, and do not fully develop until the early- to mid-20s. “I was young and stupid. I really hurt somebody. I will deeply regret it for the rest of my life, but I can’t go back and change that. What I can do is work to make DC a safer place for everybody moving into the future,” said Tyrone Walker, Georgetown Pivot Program Scholar and JPI Policy Associate, who served 24 years in prison before being released in December 2018. 

States across the country are reevaluating how they treat youth and emerging adults. JPI Director of Research and Policy Ryan King said, “DC is a leader in criminal justice reform, but we are by no means alone. Over the last decade, many states have engaged in a wide-range of criminal justice reforms that run the gamut from modest changes to significant parole reforms resulting in the release of more people from prison for all categories of offenses. These reforms have saved millions of dollars that many states have reinvested in polices far more effective than incarceration at keeping communities safe.” 

The USAO, a Trump-appointed federal prosecutor who is not elected by DC residents, and who has refused over and over to recognize the need and value for rehabilitation as part of public safety, opting to lock up residents for longer periods of time with no thought given toward how to facilitate rehabilitation, is the only opposition to this bill.

At the end of the day, one thing is true – we should not make criminal justice policy decisions based on racist tropes and outdated science; we should be making policy based on criminal justice best practices and current scientific knowledge. And that is the foundation for the Second Look Act.