D.C. May Give People Convicted As Young Adults A Chance At Resentencing
The D.C. Council is set to vote on a bill aimed at giving people who committed serious crimes before their 25th birthday an opportunity to petition a judge for resentencing.
Where Halim Flowers grew up, drugs and violence were always nearby. His father struggled with drug addiction and left town just before Flowers turned 11, according to a profile of Flowers in the Washington City Paper. At 12, Flowers began selling drugs. He stopped going to school and began using drugs and alcohol.
“It was just a downward spiral,” Flowers told The Appeal.
One day in 1996, Flowers, then 16, attempted to rob a drug house but was thwarted when the men inside tried to grab his gun. Flowers left. Later, a friend returned to the apartment and shot one of the occupants, killing him. Prosecutors say Flowers went with him; Flowers maintains he didn’t go back to the apartment. He was charged with felony murder.
In 1998, he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison. While incarcerated, Flowers wrote poetry, published books, enrolled in courses at Georgetown University through their Prison Scholars Program, and served as a mentor in the D.C. Department of Corrections Young Men Emerging Unit.
Then, in 2016, the D.C. Council passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which allows people who committed serious crimes before their 18th birthday to petition the court for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years. The law asks judges to consider the defendant’s personal history and circumstances, their commitment to change and rehabilitation in prison, statements from victims and prosecutors, and other factors, before deciding whether the petitioner’s sentence should be modified.
Thanks to the measure, Flowers was released last year after spending 22 years in prison.
Now, a new bill could allow more people like him a chance at resentencing. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council will vote on the Second Look Amendment Act, a measure to raise the cutoff age for potential resentencing to 25 from 18. The act is part of an omnibus public safety bill and it’s likely to pass—it passed unanimously during the council’s first of two votes on the bill.
The law that freed Flowers and the Second Look Amendment Act both build upon Supreme Court decisions that found it is unconstitutional to sentence people under the age of 18 to death or to mandatory life without the possibility of parole. The rulings were influenced by neuroscience research showing that children and young adults’ cognitive abilities, particularly when it comes to controlling impulses and assessing risks, are not fully developed, and the understanding that young people show a greater capacity for change and rehabilitation.
There is a growing understanding nationwide that the cognitive differences between adults and children mean children should not be held to the harsh sentencing standards as adults, even when they commit serious crimes. But research also shows that emerging adults, ages 18 to 25, are also developmentally distinct from adults: Like children, emerging adults’ brains are still developing. As a result, they are often more impulsive and emotionally immature than older adults, and make poorer decisions—but also have a greater likelihood of changing their behavior as they age.
“The research has been moving in a direction that says 18 is just too young,” said Joette James, a clinical neuropsychologist. James is the chief inpatient and outpatient neuropsychologist at HSC Pediatric Center in Washington, D.C., and has testified as an expert witness in death penalty cases and cases involving children. “This is not contested research. It has been demonstrated over and over and over again.”
“There has been a body of research that shows emerging adults are a distinct developmental group,” said Lael Chester, director of the emerging adult project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab. “The transition takes years. There’s no magic birthday. … It is imperative that the justice system recognize this robust body of research and react accordingly.”
“We want to evaluate them based on what we know about adolescent development,” Chester continued, “we don’t want to put our head in the sand and say we don’t know anything about this and go on about business as usual.”
The Second Look Amendment Act is part of an emerging trend to extend youth resentencing measures to young adults. In California, people who committed a crime before the age of 26 and have already served 15, 20, or 25 years in prison (depending on the original sentence) are required to receive parole hearings once they become eligible for a hearing. A parole board then determines whether they are eligible for release. Illinois passed a similar measure in 2018. It allows some people who have already served at least 10 years for a crime they committed before they were 21 years old to petition for early release on parole. Lawmakers in Colorado and Florida have also proposed legislation that would give people under the age of 25 a chance to get their sentences reconsidered after they have served a certain amount of time.
If D.C.’s second look bill passes, at least 300 people could be eligible to apply for sentence reduction, according to the Washington Post. The bill has the support of the council and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. Mayor Muriel Bowser initially expressed support for the bill, but has more recently expressed opposition to it. And the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., formerly led by Trump appointee Jessie Liu, has strongly opposed the measure, as has the D.C. Metropolitan Police. Since the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act passed, D.C.’s U.S. attorney’s office has opposed nearly every petition for early release of youth offenders.
“The victims of these crimes and the community at large should not be jeopardized by the Council’s rush to expand the [Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act],” said Liu in a press release issued last year that pinned her office’s opposition to the bill on a perceived threat to public safety and what she considers a lack of consideration for the victims of the people who could petition for release.
While some victims may wish to keep those who harmed them or their loved ones incarcerated, others feel differently.
In a letter to the editor published by the Washington Post, April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, took issue with what she called the “fearmongering” and “weaponizing of some survivors’ experiences” from one of D.C.’s advisory neighborhood commissioners and Liu.
“As a black woman and mother who has survived sexual assault and intra-community violence, I will not tolerate being spoken for,” Goggans wrote. “I support the Second Look Amendment Act without any reservations. Keeping people in jail does not make us safer.”
Research has shown people are less likely to commit crimes as they grow older. By the time people are eligible to potentially get their sentences reduced under D.C. law, they will have already aged at least 15 years and will be out of the adolescent or emerging adult phase of cognitive development and into their 30s.
Charles Allen, the Ward 6 council member and chairperson of the judiciary committee, said in late November that 55 people have been given reduced sentences under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, and none of them have reoffended, DCist reported.
“What the U.S. attorney’s office is recommending is contrary to the goal of public safety,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. “Long sentences are not a deterrence to crime. We’re now at a time in our society where there’s more willingness to realize that we need to invest in ways other than long prison sentences to make our community safer.”
Since Flowers was released from prison, he has received fellowships from the Halcyon Arts Lab and Echoing Green which allow him to continue creating visual art and worked with Kim Kardashian West on a documentary about America’s justice system.
“Now, as a 40-year-old adult, I find it to be very inhumane,” Flowers said of lengthy or life sentences for children and emerging adults. “I think it runs afoul of our Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. But I also found it to be as American as apple pie. That’s what America does to Black people.”
Ghandnoosh—and the Model Penal Code, a proposed criminal code created by the American Law Institute to standardize U.S. penal law—say that ideally, the opportunity to get one’s sentence reviewed by a judge or parole board after serving part of the sentence ought to be extended to everyone, not just people under 25.
“This is a really exciting piece of legislation, but given the scale of the problem that mass incarceration is, we should always ask, is it enough?” Ghandnoosh said. “Half of the prison population [nationwide] is convicted of a violent offense,” she added, noting that the population of people who would be considered older or elderly in prison is rapidly growing because many are stuck serving long sentences in prison with little to no chance for release. “If we want to end mass incarceration, we have to revisit these long sentences we’ve put on people for these violent crimes.”
Some lawmakers and elected officials have already taken steps to allow more people to get a second look at their sentences. State legislatures in New York, Maryland, and West Virginia have all introduced bills to allow incarcerated people to get their sentences re-examined after serving a significant portion. At the federal level, U.S. Senator Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would allow people who have served 10 years in prison to petition a federal court to get their sentence reviewed by a judge. Like D.C.’s second look act, the bill gives judges the final say on whether the petitioner is ready to leave prison and re-enter society.
Newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón issued a special directive to his deputy DAs on Dec. 7, changing the office’s sentencing policies and requiring that they reevaluate and consider resentencing people who have already served 15 years in prison. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby also recently announced she has launched a similar sentencing review unit. Across the country, district attorneys like Gascón and Mosby have created review units designed to give lengthy past sentences a second look.
“If we really are going to do anything about mass incarceration, decriminalizing marijuana isn’t going to do it,” said Barbara Fedders, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Law, where she directs the Youth Justice Clinic. “It’s going to be these sort of things—taking a second look at people who have been convicted of violent crimes.”
CORRECTION: This article initially mischaracterized Muriel Bowser’s position on the Second Look Amendment Act.