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Criminal Justice Reform in D.C. - The Second Look Amendment Act

Image from Nicole Greenfield’s article on The Connection Between Mass Incarceration and Environmental Justice. Drawn by Bruno Mallart.

The United States criminal justice system has been experiencing an era of mass incarceration, a term that refers to the unprecedented explosion in prison populations across the nation since the 1970s. This immense growth in inmate populations has been attributed to the war on drugs and many tough-on-crime policies such as mandatory minimums and longer prison sentences. Our prison population was over 2 million — an almost 500% increase since the 1970s prison population of about 200,000. Additionally, minorities are disproportionately overrepresented. As this ACLU article notes, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime compared to one in seventeen white men.

Image from and drawn by Daniel Nott from his article on What is Mass Incarceration. Cartoon that displays the growth in the incarcerated population over time between 1930 to 2010s.

Accordingly, much demand for change and work has gone into addressing the issue of mass incarceration across the nation. In particular, communities in the District of Columbia have been staunch advocates for implementing system reform. After all, the city's incarceration rate is higher than any other state and many laws have disproportionately targeted D.C.’s black and brown communities.

For the most part, D.C. has become a forerunner in implementing innovative criminal justice reform. One such example is D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act of 2019 (SLAA) which became effective in April 2021. This law expanded upon the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016 (IRAA), which reduces prison populations by allowing individuals convicted of a violent crime who were sentenced before 18 years old and have served 20 years to be eligible for early release. Under the amended law, it has expanded to encompass individuals who were sentenced before they were 25 years old and have served at least 15 years.

SLAA and IRAA are based on “emerging adulthood” research, which refers to the period between adolescence and adulthood where individuals' brains and identities are still developing. As a result, they are more likely to engage in risky and intense behaviors, like crime, as they chase new experiences and attempt to figure out their identity. This risk-taking behavior usually peaks by one’s mid-twenties, and people also tend to age out of crime as they grow older. Furthermore, additional research has identified that longer sentences do not reduce one’s likelihood to recidivate nor address issues and may cause trauma to the inmate. As this article from Urban Institute notes, “long, inflexible prison terms are counterproductive for people of any age, and affect young adults during a crucial stage in their lives.”

Image of the Second Look Project logo which works on finding representation for individuals who are attempting to get released through the SLAA. For more information, please visit their website or twitter

The SLAA will impact the District of Columbia’s correctional system as it functions as another method for inmates to be released and re-enter society. In addition, inmates who were sentenced out of D.C. and fit the criteria (sentenced before 25th birthday and served at least 15 years) will be allowed to apply for their case to be heard and reexamined. Ultimately, the goal is that the law will reduce D.C’s inmate population and lower the number of individuals with long sentences.

Furthermore, SLAA is intended to help individuals of all races and ethnicities who fit the criteria noted above. White, Asian, Hispanic, and Black inmates are all eligible to apply. In particular, this law has been most beneficial towards D.C’s communities of color. After all, discriminatory practices which targeted minorities have resulted in a disproportionate number of black and brown individuals being convicted and sentenced to longer prison sentences. As such, SLAA offers new opportunities to reduce the disproportionate effect of tough-on-crime policies on prisoners of color.

Image of Kareem McCraney taken by Marvin Joseph for this Washington Post article.

Over 50 inmates have been released since the passing of the SLAA and IRAA, and none of them have recidivated. Mr. Kareem McCraney (pictured above) was the first inmate released under the new law. At the age of 17, he was convicted of murder, and after two decades, has reentered society as a new man. Reflecting on his youth, McCraney acknowledged he had made a mistake. After he participated in educational programs, became a model inmate, through the SLAA, he was given a chance to start anew and live free. Reform like the SLAA affords inmates the opportunity to rebuild their lives and reenter society, all while also reducing the impact of mass incarceration and tough-on-crime policies.

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