Second chances: A look at D.C.’s second look act
Updated: Oct 20
Prisoners who committed offenses in their youths are finally getting a second chance. D.C. recently passed the Second Look Amendment Act, an amendment to the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016, which allows for offenders who were young at the time of their offense to have an opportunity for a sentence review. As neuroscience has evolved, it has become apparent that the brain does not fully develop until a person is in their mid- to late twenties, yet punishment for crimes has not evolved along with science. D.C. offenders who were twenty-five years old or younger at the time of their offense will now have a second chance at freedom.
In 2016, the D.C. Council passed the Comprehensive Youth Justice Act and within it, the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (“IRAA”). The IRAA is legislation that allows for prisoners who committed an offense at or before they reached the age of eighteen to have their sentences re-evaluated if they have served at least twenty years of their sentence. The IRAA was enacted for offenders who are not considered to be dangerous. Offenders must meet eleven factors outlined within the legislation, which largely focus on the offender’s behavior while incarcerated and the level of exhibited rehabilitation.
Now, the age limit for a sentence review has been raised to twenty-five. The Second Look Amendment Act was approved on December 15, 2020 and allows for offenders who were twenty-five years old or younger at the time of their offense to be eligible for sentence review, so long as they have served at least fifteen years of their sentence. This post-conviction initiative was not achieved without great effort. Both Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C.’s previous Police Chief, Peter Newsham, were not wholly supportive of the final legislation. Mayor Bowser’s reservations were based in her desire to ensure that the victim’s statements are being considered during these sentence reviews. The Metropolitan Police Department denounced the amendment on its face, tweeting that gun violence has increased in D.C. and legislation like the Second Look Amendment Act would allow for the “early release of hundreds of violent gun offenders.” Previous Police Chief Newsham cited similar concerns to Mayor Bowser: both want the victim’s statements to be more integral in evaluating sentences.
When the Second Look Amendment Act was passed at the very end of 2020, only eighteen offenders had been released under IRAA, its predecessor. Of those eighteen, none have reoffended. While it is still too early to have reliable data regarding legislation like the IRAA and the Second Look Amendment Act, the early results are promising regarding recidivism rates. Statements from one of the individuals who was released after the passage of IRAA illustrate that age most certainly has an impact on one’s actions, as he called himself at the time of his offense, “foolish, immature, and reckless.”
The Second Look Amendment Act’s inclusion of older offenders is more beneficial and logical because of recent discoveries regarding neurodevelopment. The prefrontal cortex, the rational part of one’s brain, does not fully develop until someone is at least twenty-five years old, and adults process information using the prefrontal cortex. In contrast, youths process information using the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. The Supreme Court has recently begun to grapple with age and sentencing, ruling that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s reasoning for such a ruling relied in great part on scientific discoveries that illustrate that there are “fundamental differences between adult and juvenile minds,” particularly the section of the brain involved in controlling behavior.
Understanding this, it is apparent that legislative reform that allows for sentence review for young offenders is crucial. If there is scientific evidence that the brain of a young offender is different from the brain of a fully developed adult offender, then punishment and sentences should be different based upon age. The offenders who are eligible for sentence review under the Second Look Amendment Act have grown into adulthood while in prison. Because of the Second Look Amendment Act, these offenders have the opportunity to show their own growth and to perhaps have a second chance at life.