Roughly a dozen people were left standing outside the U.S. Attorney’s Office at Judiciary Square Thursday night. They had responded to an invitation to hear the Trump-appointed prosecutor, Jessie K. Liu, whose office handles felony cases in the District, talk about a sentencing reform bill currently in front of the D.C. Council.
The Second Look Amendment Act of 2019 expands an existing law that allows people who’ve been given long sentences for committing serious, violent crimes before they turned 18, such as rape and murder, a chance at release. The amendment, co-introduced by Councilmembers Charles Allen, Jack Evans, Kenyan McDuffie, Robert White, Anita Bonds, David Grosso, and Brianne Nadeau, would expand the law to include those convicted before their 25th birthdays. The law requires that offenders serve at least 15 years in prison before they are eligible for resentencing. So far, 21 people have applied for resentencing under the current law, and 20 of them have been released or resentenced.
The law and the amendment extend from the growing amount of research showing human brains are not fully developed until around age 25. The U.S. Supreme Court has relied on this research in multiple decisions curtailing harsh sentences for youthful offenders who commit heinous crimes.
Representatives from groups such as Black Lives Matter DC, the Stop Police Terror Project DC, ACLU-DC, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Sentencing Project arrived at the meeting to show their support for the bill. They were greeted by barricades and several federal officers standing outside the building on 4th Street NW. An officer told LL that one of the groups had applied for a permit to demonstrate, and the officers were there to keep the peace. April Goggans, an organizer with BLM, says the group did not apply for any permits. Neither did the ACLU or Stop Police Terror Project, according to spokespeople with those organizations. An MPD spokesperson says no permit applications were filed for Sept. 5.
Shortly before the 6:30 p.m. scheduled start time, a federal agent told people waiting to get inside that the room “at capacity.” The officer then asked if any advisory neighborhood commissioners were left out. One woman raised her hand and was escorted inside.
By the time LL got inside, around 7 p.m., Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham was speaking to the room where only a few chairs were empty and some people stood in the back. Advisory neighborhood commissioners, crime victims, and a few criminal justice reform advocates listened as Newsham, along with several representatives from the USAO, spoke against the bill.
Newsham, who opposes the bill despite it having the support of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, showed several slides with photos of victims of high-profile violent crimes in D.C. Among those on the chief’s list were Brishell Jones, 16, Makiyah Wilson, 10, Jamahri Sydnor, 17, Daniel Krug, 30, Michael and Virginia Spevak, 68 and 67, and Margery Magill, the 27-year-old woman who was stabbed to death last month while walking a dog.
“They call this a second look, but many of these people have lengthy criminal histories,” Newsham said, often referring to the people convicted for the crimes he identified as “grown men.” “People have to be held responsible, and we cannot let the voice of the victims be drowned out.”
Ward 6 ANC Denise Krepp and former Ward 5 ANC Kathy Henderson also voiced their opposition to the bill.
Renata Cooper, the USAO’s special counsel for legislative affairs, ran through the legislative history, beginning in 2016, when the Council passed a bill that gave people convicted before the age of 18 who had served at least 20 years a chance to apply for resentencing. The Council amended the law two years later, Cooper pointed out, through the “Omnibus Public Safety and Justice Amendment Act of 2018,” a bill that started as the “Child Neglect and Sex Trafficking Amendment Act of 2017.”
The change reduced the minimum amount of prison time to 15 years and removed “nature of the offense” as an explicit factor that judges could consider when deciding to resentence an offender.
The USAO has argued that removal of that language would “preclude” judges from considering the original offense, according to an email sent to ANCs. Councilmember Allen and other supporters of the law argue that judges can still consider the underlying crime through reports and recommendations from the USAO, statements from victims, and “any other information the court deems relevant to its decision.”
“It is our view that these are not ‘minor, technical, and conforming’ changes,” Cooper told the audience, mimicking the language in the committee report.
John Hill, a deputy chief and career prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, cited several statistics, including those showing that about 500 offenders would be immediately eligible to apply for resentencing.
Like Newsham, Hill listed several victims—a 7-year-old boy who was murdered, a 22-year-old mother who was murdered, and a 17-year-old girl who was gang raped.
“This is not fear mongering I’m doing right now,” he told the audience, acknowledging the criticism of his office’s campaign against the Council’s bill. “These are facts.”
Hill drew a few groans from some in the audience when he flashed a slide claiming that D.C.’s incarceration rate is lower than any U.S. state. The District’s incarceration rate is typically reported to be higher than any U.S. state. Some data indicate that the District has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
According to the graph that Hill showed the audience, D.C.’s incarceration rate was somewhere between 250 and 300 people per 100,000 in 2018. Hill later clarified to LL that he took the information from a Bureau of Justice Statistics report entitled “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2016,” which used 2016 data but was published in 2018. In calculating D.C.’s incarceration rate, that BJS report only counted inmates in the local jail and left out those housed in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.
Some of the most recent data from the BOP, which an analyst with The Sentencing Project provided to LL, shows that about 5,200 D.C. offenders are housed in BOP facilities. The Prison Policy Institute has estimated D.C.’s incarceration rate to be about 1,100 per 100,000 people.
Following the meeting, Hill acknowledged in an email that the BJS report undercounted D.C.’s incarcerated population, but said his office’s opposition to the bill remains.
“We do not believe that the Second Look Act as currently drafted adequately addresses the needs of victims or ensures the safety of the community,” Hill wrote.
Sarah McClellan, the chief of the USAO’s victim witness assistance unit, described for the audience what it’s like for victims to hear that offenders they believed would be in prison for decades now have a chance at release. She said the law “reactivates trauma” and sends victims and their loved ones back to the day the crime occurred.
One man, who said his transgender son was murdered in 2012, described it as a “nightmare.” He spoke directly to Liu, who stood against a wall on the side of the room, and told her to “put her tennis shoes on” and continue to fight against the bill. He suggested that those who support the bill are either academics or looking to score political points with the African American community—a jab aimed at Allen, who is the primary sponsor for the bill.
“It’s not going to work,” the man said. “You’re going to find out the African American community is a lot more conservative than that.”
Robert Brannum, an ANC from Ward 5, asked Liu why her office is pushing for a sentence reduction for notorious drug kingpin Rayful Edmond while opposing this bill at the same time.
Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney for External Affairs Wendy Pohlhaus incorrectly answered that D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is pushing for Edmond’s sentence to be reduced, not the USAO. Her colleagues corrected her, and she then told Brannum that she could not comment on Edmond’s potential sentence reduction because it is still pending.
Racine does have a role in Edmond’s case. The judge considering Edmond’s sentence reduction tasked his office with gathering community input and submitting that information to the court. Racine submitted his brief to the court last month, which includes input from more than 500 D.C. residents, and showed a sharp divide between those who believe Edmond’s sentence should be reduced and those who do not.
After the meeting, a few demonstrators remained outside. Among them were Tyrone Walker and Troy Burner,two men convicted of terrible crimes as teenagers and released late last year.
Walker, who was convicted at 17 and served more than 24 years for murder, says he RSVP’d to the USAO’s event but was not allowed in. Instead, the now 44-year-old spent the evening talking with people about his story and advocating for the bill.
He now works for the Justice Policy Institute.
“I learn fast, just like I learned from that mistake in my life,” Walker says. “Never do anything like that again.”
This post has been updated with comments from BLM, the ACLU, Stop Police Terror Project, and MPD regarding an alleged application for a public demonstration.