The DC Council Wants to Pass a Criminal Sentencing Reform Bill. The US Attorney's Office Has Launched a Campaign to Stop It. – Washington City Paper
Should judges weigh rehabilitation over punishment for youthful offenders?
Darrow MontgomeryWhen the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, wanted to raise hell about a proposed criminal sentencing reform bill making its way through the D.C. Council, they started with the Washington Post.
On August 3, the Post editorial board published a rebuke of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s bill that would give more people serving long sentences for violent crimes a shot at release. The current law, the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), passed unanimously in 2016 and allows those convicted as juveniles of serious violent crimes, such as rape and murder, to apply for resentencing after serving at least 15 years in prison.
Allen’s bill, the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019, would expand the law to include those who committed their crimes before their 25th birthday. The legislation was co-introduced by seven other councilmembers in February and follows U.S. Supreme Court precedent curtailing harsh sentences for young offenders.
Echoing Liu’s stance, the editorial boardhich works independtly from the Post’s news operation, argued that the Council had pushed too far too quickly. The editorial lists examples, provided by Liu, of individuals who would be eligible for resentencing under Allen’s bill and identified each person by the heinous nature of their crimes. One man was described as “a killer who, having stuffed his victim’s corpse in a trash can, proceeded to execute the victim’s girlfriend for fear she could be a witness.” (The Post also published a reported piece about the bill on the same day. The editorial board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Since the Post’s coverage, the USAO has only ramped up its public opposition to the bill.
“It’s a full on campaign, which includes proactive outreach to the community, to news outlets, and to ANC members,” a spokesperson for the USAO says, adding that the office has reached out to several advisory neighborhood commissioners in wards 7 and 8 and plans for representatives to attend community meetings in those areas.
Last week, Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney for External Affairs Wendy Pohlhaus sent an email to the Ward 4 listserv, linking to the two Post items and offering to attend community meetings to “explain the legislation.” In the email, Pohlhaus describes the bill’s effect, saying it would “preclude the court from considering the nature of the original offense, ‘despite the brutality or cold-bloodied nature of [the] particular crime.’”
But that characterization is not quite accurate.
In fact, the “nature of the offense” was explicitly listed as one of several factors a judge must consider in resentencing an offender under the IRAA. The Council voted unanimously to remove that language after prosecutors in Liu’s office used it as a basis for opposing each of the 19 requests for resentencing. All but one request has been granted.
The remaining factors still allow the judge to consider the underlying offense through reports and recommendations from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, statements from victims, and “any other information the court deems relevant to its decision,” supporters of the law argue.
In an email responding to Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner Erin Palmer, who questioned the USAO’s characterization, Allen writes that “a judge can’t just say ‘because the offense you committed was a horrible one, you’re not eligible for revising the sentence.’ The reality is, anyone applying through IRAA committed a horrible offense. You don’t go to federal BOP for stealing a pack of gum. The law is not about establishing guilt again—because they are guilty of that crime. Rather, it’s trying to establish if this person has successfully rehabilitated, is a risk to the public, and whether there is a need to continue having them jailed.”
Allen defends the law and his bill further, writing in the email to Palmer that “there’s also an inherent racial bias that plays out here—in our criminal justice system, if a white man and black man commit the same crime, the black man will get a longer and harsher sentence. Creating a sentence review after 15 years can also help serve as a check on that inherent bias within the system.”
On Friday, August 9, the USAO issued a press release with the title “New Bill Seeks to Make Over 500 Violent Criminals (Including Many Rapists and Murderers) Immediately Eligible for Early Release,” adding that the legislation “re-victimizes victims and ignores public safety in the District.”
The U.S. Attorney, citing Bureau of Prisons data, says that 583 offenders would be eligible to apply for resentencing under the bill and “one in three will reoffend within three years of release.”
Liu’s release asserts that Allen’s bill is “not evidence-based, does little to protect the rights of victims and comes at a time when the homicide rate in the District has increased significantly.” None of the people who’ve been released under the IRAA have been arrested for new crimes.
In response, Allen tells LL via email that he is “disappointed but not surprised, by the factually inaccurate and fear-mongering statement” from the USAO. “Their failure to constructively engage is in line with this administration’s belief that the judicial system is for locking people away rather than rehabilitation and public safety,” he writes.
The Council passed the IRAA in 2016 after multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings barred juvenile offenders from receiving the death penalty, mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole, and life without parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. The court has relied on the growing amount of research showing that brain development continues until about age 25. Young people, the court has ruled, are less culpable and have greater potential for rehabilitation.
According to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, D.C. has a higher incarceration rate than any U.S. state at 1,153 per 100,000 people. Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi are the only states with incarceration rates over 1,000.
The United States has the largest prison population in the world, most of which is held in state prisons. Because D.C. no longer has the equivalent of a state prison, D.C. code offenders are housed in federal BOP facilities throughout the country.
Data also show that the largest portion of state prisoners are locked up for violent crimes. To make a dent in mass incarceration in the U.S., advocates argue for refocusing attention on that population. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports show that violent offenders are less likely to recidivate than individuals convicted of drug, property, or public order crimes such as drunk driving and probation violations; they’re also the least likely to be rearrested for the same offense.
Research has shown that longer prison sentences do little to reduce crime. Norway, for example, generally caps prison sentences at 21 years, yet the country has a lower violent crime rate than the U.S.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has publicly voiced his support for Allen’s bill. Racine’s office prosecutes juvenile crime in the District, as well as adult misdemeanors. The U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes adult felony cases in D.C.
In a letter sent to Allen (citing the American Academy of Pediatrics) dated May 10, 2019, Racine writes that “we can no longer think of long, punitive sentences as the sole response to crime. It is time to forge a new path, guided by science and data, towards just sentences that serve the greatest public interest of District residents. Updating our policy to reflect the growing consensus that emerging adults are developmentally distinct from adults and merit more focused rehabilitation efforts would be a critical step forward.”
But the SLAA has stoked division within Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue testified in support of the bill in March.
In an emailed statement, Donahue says “judges should consider both the seriousness of the crimes, as well as the individual’s rehabilitation. Research shows that criminal sentencing should account for a person’s maturation, especially those who, through their action while incarcerated, have demonstrated both remorse and change.” But changes to the law, he says, should be crafted with consideration for victims and their families.
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham has a different take.
“I think the IRAA has already created a very serious public safety concern for the residents of Washington D.C.,” Newsham writes via email.
To illustrate his point, Newsham attached a judicial order in the case of Rodney C. Williams—the same order the USAO is using as an example to support its opposition—writing that the victims in that case have been “defrauded” by the criminal justice system.
“I am not certain that all of the husbands, women and nine year old girls who live in the District are aware of this decision or the public impact of this law,” Newsham writes. “I believe any expansion of this IRAA will have serious public safety consequences, and anyone who would support such an expansion has absolutely no regard for the victims or the families who are impacted by violent crime.”
In 1983, Williams pleaded guilty to rape while armed, sodomy, and armed robbery—crimes he committed as a 17-year-old. Williams, now 54, has served 36 years in prison and applied for resentencing under the IRAA. In June, D.C. Superior Court Judge Michael K. O’Keefe resentenced Williams to make him eligible for parole but did not offer an opinion as to whether he should be released. Nearly all others who’ve applied for resentencing under the IRAA have been given credit for time already served and released.
In his order, the judge summarizes Williams’ crimes, each of which involved breaking into homes with other young men and raping women between August and September of 1982. In one of the incidents, two of Williams’ accomplices accosted a woman at gunpoint while she was taking out the trash. The men forced her into her home on Macomb Street NW, where she lived with her husband and two children, according to court records.
The two men raped the woman while Williams and three others moved through the house taking the family’s belongings, Judge O’Keefe describes in his order. One of the men, Ray McLamore, raped the woman’s 9-year-old daughter. Williams was in the bedroom for at least part of the attack, O’Keefe notes, but did nothing to stop it.
O’Keefe calls Williams’ case “extremely difficult” and writes that his “sociopathic behavior” warrants an extreme sentence.
“People can and do change,” O’Keefe writes. “Can a juvenile sociopath mature into a well-adjusted empathetic adult? For the good of society, let’s hope so.”
For now, Williams awaits a hearing in front of the U.S. Parole Commission. His attorney, Todd Baldwin, has filed a motion for reconsideration.
“They label them as murderers and rapists,” Baldwin says. “These are terrible things that they did, but 17-year-olds should not be punished for the rest of their lives. I can say that the USAO’s office has opposed not just my client’s case, but every single case. Their problem is not with [the proposed amendment], it’s with [the law] itself.”