WASHINGTON — The District of Columbia Council passed legislation on Tuesday that would give people who committed crimes as young adults a chance to have their sentences reduced, reflecting a growing national debate over whether offenders in their late teens and early 20s should be treated the same as older people when it comes to sentencing.
The bill would give broad authority to judges to determine whether offenders who were younger than 25 at the time of their crimes and have served at least 15 years — many if not all of them convicted of violent offenses — deserve early release.
Opponents of the legislation say it could let hundreds of violent criminals back onto the streets of the nation’s capital. Supporters say the legislation would align the criminal justice system with research that indicates those in their late teens and early to mid-20s lack complete brain maturity and deserve to be treated more leniently than older adults.
The bill now goes to Mayor Muriel Bowser, who can sign the legislation, allow it to become law without her signature or veto it. She has criticized the bill, but the 12-to-1 vote in the council would be enough to override any veto.
The bill would not exclude offenders convicted of especially violent crimes. According to a Justice Department review, many of those who would be eligible for sentencing reductions were convicted of offenses including murder and sex crimes. The D.C. police department suggested that the legislation could provide for the early release of “hundreds of violent gun offenders.”
Illinois enacted similar legislation in 2019 that allowed inmates who committed crimes when they were younger than 21 to apply for release on parole after 10 years. Those convicted of some violent crimes must wait at least 20 years into their sentences, and others are not eligible under the law, including those convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child.
In California, most inmates younger than 26 at the time of their crimes qualify for youth offender parole hearings, which may entitle them to earlier release. But that type of hearing is not given to those sentenced to death or those adults sentenced under the state’s three-strikes law, which gives harsher penalties to repeat felons.
The debate over whether young adults deserve special consideration has also been fueled by a recent federal death penalty case. Brandon Bernard was executed by the Justice Department on Thursday for murders in which he played a role at age 18.
His case generated a high-profile clemency campaign built in part around the starkly different sentences imposed on others convicted in the case who were a few years younger than Mr. Bernard and are now out of prison or could be eligible for release.
Lael Chester, the director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, said a threshold of 18 for treatment as an adult was arbitrary. Research demonstrates that there is “no magic birthday,” she said.
“You don’t magically transform into an adult at age 18,” she said. “Should the justice system have a safety valve in which to review the case and consider this?”
The Justice Department, whose Federal Bureau of Prisons incarcerates most violent offenders convicted in Washington, estimated that 487 inmates would become immediately eligible to apply for release under the legislation. Among those are people convicted in 305 cases of murder and 28 cases of rape, along with dozens of convictions for assault and robbery.
But Charles Allen, chairman of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, who has shepherded the bill, estimated that the number of eligible offenders would be closer to 300.
“These guys are the same age as me, and when I talk to them, they barely can even recognize the person they were when they were 17 years old,” said Mr. Allen, 43. “They’re fathers. In many cases, they’re grandfathers at this point. They’re brothers. They’re sons.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional, citing evidence that adolescent brains were not yet fully mature.
The D.C. Council passed a bill a few years later that allowed those who had committed their offenses before age 18 and served at least 20 years in prison to request a modification to their sentence. The council later amended the legislation, lowering the minimum sentence for review to 15 years and removing a phrase that required the judge to consider “the nature of the offense.”
Prosecutors in the cases, who, in the District of Columbia, operate under the Justice Department, opposed many of the applications for resentencing. But judges have granted the vast majority of such motions. To date, more than 50 inmates have been released under the law, the majority of whom were convicted of homicide.
David Gorman, who leads the section of the U.S. attorney’s office that prosecutes D.C. homicides, said he was not aware of a single inmate who had been convicted of a violent crime after release under the law.
But Mr. Gorman said there had not been enough time to determine the rate of recidivism among those released. The program appeared to prevent judges from giving due weight to the nature of the crime and the rights of victims and their families, he said, arguing that any new law must ensure that “the lives of victims and survivors are not devalued.”
“These are not drug offenses,” he said, of the hundreds of inmates who could be eligible for release under the bill passed on Tuesday. “These are all violent crime defendants.”
The legislation would raise the age eligible for review to 25, a decision guided by research that shows those in their early 20s have not yet fully matured.
Mary M. Cheh, a member of the council, attempted to reintroduce language that required judges to consider the cruelty of a crime and stressed the importance of the victims’ statements. Those proposals were rejected by the council.
“If the crime that you committed is also heinous and you were not a juvenile, I just really think that the judge has to pay special attention to that in the sense of these other factors,” said Ms. Cheh, who ultimately voted for the bill. “I just don’t think that the right balance was struck with this particular bill.”
Mayor Bowser had expressed a similar sentiment at a news conference on Monday, saying that victims’ voices should be represented.
Though some victims have supported the legislation, others have not, said Bridgette Stumpf, the executive director of the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. Her organization submitted recommendations for the bill, at least some of which were rebuffed by the council’s judiciary committee, she said. Among those provisions, the organization requested that the court be required to explain why the judge’s decision diverged from the victims’ sentencing recommendation.
The legislation essentially gives judges responsibility for determining whether the inmate would be dangerous if released, said James Zeigler, a lawyer who has represented 10 of those who applied for resentencing under the earlier law. Applications for resentencing usually include juvenile records, testimony from family and friends, and prison records with disciplinary infractions, he said.
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