Recognizing that young people are developmentally and neurologically different from adults in ways that make them categorically less culpable, Washington, D.C. has taken significant steps to give people who were convicted when they were young an opportunity to reduce their sentences. In 2016, D.C. passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), which allows inmates who committed serious offenses before their 18th birthday to petition the court for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years. Given the success of the IRAA and in recognition of the social and developmental science showing that the brain is not fully developed until age 25, D.C. passed additional legislation in 2021: The Second Look Amendment Act (SLAA) expands the possibility of a reduced sentence to people who were under 25 at the time of the offense and who have served at least 15 years.
To obtain a reduced sentence under the SLAA, petitioners must show that they are not a danger to the safety of any person or the community and that the interests of justice warrant a sentence modification. During an evidentiary hearing, the judge considers the petitioner’s entire life, from childhood through their years in prison, to determine whether the evidence demonstrates rehabilitation and a commitment to change.
In partnership with the Public Defenders Service for the District of Columbia, the firm represented “Jeremiah” in his request to modify his sentence under the SLAA. Jeremiah was 20 years old when he was convicted of a felony and sentenced to 21 years to life in prison. He spent nearly 25 years in prison (longer than he was alive before going to prison), during which time he demonstrated that he had become a responsible adult who was ready to return home to his family and community.
Like many emerging adults who are incarcerated, Jeremiah exhibited personal and spiritual development as he aged, illustrating his capacity for growth and change. While incarcerated, Jeremiah obtained his GED and became certified in several trades. To prepare for life after prison, he completed more than 40 programs, including programs in hospitality and restaurant management, computer support services, commercial driving, and forklift operation. Jeremiah became a mentor to other inmates and a leader who promoted community-building and self-reflection. Overcoming the alcohol and drug addiction that blighted his youth, Jeremiah has been sober since 2002. He relies on his religion, writing in journals, and the skills he learned through his participation in various programs to get through any conflict or difficult time. He has expressed remorse to his victim’s family and continues to reflect on and take responsibility for his role in the offense that led to his incarceration. Finally, Jeremiah was able to present a plan for reentering society as a productive and law-abiding citizen.
The trial court agreed that Jeremiah does not currently pose a danger to the safety of any person or the community and that the interests of justice required him to be resentenced. The court resentenced Jeremiah to a suspended term of incarceration, ordered his immediate release, and placed him on supervised probation. Jeremiah has now reentered society.
The firm continues to support efforts nationwide to reduce the sentences of individuals who committed offenses while they were minors or young adults. Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that people sentenced to long prison terms as juveniles are entitled to petition for release after serving 20 years. (The firm submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in that case and advocated for a lookback period.) That ruling entitles approximately 60 people to petition for release, and the firm is currently representing one such individual who seeks to demonstrate to the court that he is ready to rejoin society.
Like many emerging adults who are incarcerated, Jeremiah exhibited personal and spiritual development as he aged, illustrating his capacity for growth and change.