The New DC Second Look Amendment Act Is a Step in the Right Direction, and Community Supports for Young Adults Can Build on This Progress

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This week, the Council of the District of Columbia approved by an overwhelming majority a first-in-the-nation law allowing people in prison who were convicted of serious offenses as young adults to be considered for release via judicial review. DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act already does this for people who were convicted of such offenses before age 18 and have served at least 15 years in prison, and none of the more than 50 people released so far have returned to prison. The Second Look Amendment Act will extend eligibility to people convicted before age 25.

 The evidence on both emerging adulthood—a life stage roughly between the ages of 18 and 26—and the ineffectiveness of long sentences affirms the DC Council’s vote. Creating meaningful opportunities for release from prison is a critical part of reforming the criminal legal system, and other jurisdictions can learn from DC's example. In DC, pairing this reform with new and expanded community supports for young people could further advance public safety goals.

 Emerging adulthood is a unique developmental and social stage

Research shows emerging adulthood is a life stage characterized by unique opportunities and risks that can have long-standing positive or negative effects on someone’s life. Brain development continues well into our twenties (PDF), making people in this age range more susceptible to risk-taking and impulsive decisions. People in their late teens and early twenties form their identities and may experience major transitions and milestones, such as entering the workforce or beginning a family. Structural inequities like racism and poverty can limit opportunities and create significant roadblocks on the pathway to stable adulthood, including housing instability, arrest (PDF), and victimization.

 The criminal legal system generally doesn’t account for the complexities of early adulthood. The abrupt divide between the juvenile and adult legal systems—usually at age 18—is at odds with the developmental and lived experiences of people entering young adulthood. Emerging adults are more vulnerable to being involved at nearly every stage of the legal system (PDF), and they are more likely to return to the justice system than people of other ages (PDF). The Second Look Amendment Act takes this into account and offers an opportunity for people who committed offenses during emerging adulthood to be considered to return home. This reform is consistent with other DC policy efforts that recognize the unique considerations associated with young adults in the justice system.

 Long sentences are not the answer

The DC Council’s decision also reflects an understanding that long prison sentences do not reduce the likelihood that people leaving prison will commit another crime. Long prison terms are not designed to address the causes of violence or help people change their lives for the better. Far from preventing violence, prisons may perpetuate it by inflicting more trauma and victimization and interfering with accountability. Long, inflexible prison terms are counterproductive for people of any age, and affect young adults during a crucial stage in their lives. DC’s Second Look Amendment Act would acknowledge the reality that long sentences are not consistent with how people change over their entire life course, especially throughout young adulthood.

 The passage of the Second Look Amendment Act is especially crucial because of the structural racism that permeates DC’s justice system, from arrest to incarceration and release. Recently published data show that police overwhelmingly target Black residents with practices, such as stop-and-frisk practices, that expose people to the justice system. Other analyses show that these racial inequities increase at every stage of the DC justice system. Nationally, severe prison sentences fall disproportionately on young, Black men. Though data on DC’s prison population are limited, the data we have suggest similarly stark trends (PDF). Because people convicted of DC code felonies are incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons system, they may spend decades thousands of miles from their families and communities, making the consequences even more extreme.

Overwhelming evidence shows “tough on crime” sentencing policies enacted nationwide since the 1970s have not yielded public safety results. States and jurisdictions nationwide are increasingly scaling back these policies and looking for better ways to address serious and violent crime. Some have adopted “second look” policies that allow sentence modifications for people convicted before age 18. A few states have extended unique eligibility for parole board consideration for some people convicted as young adults, but others have only considered similar measures. DC broke new ground by becoming the first jurisdiction in the nation to give people sentenced before age 25 the opportunity to be considered by a judge for release based on the changes they have made in the intervening years.

Community supports in DC can build safety for young adults and their neighborhoods

The passage of the Second Look Amendment Act is only a starting point. Evidence shows pairing such reform with increased investment in targeted community supports is the best way to keep young adults and their communities safe. Community supports help facilitate healthy development and prevent young adults from becoming enmeshed in the legal system in the first place, and they can provide vital support for people returning home from incarceration. DC has already made promising steps in this direction—for example, through the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act—and could expand these efforts with a concerted focus on young adults.

 Our research shows that long-term success for emerging adults is associated with strong relationships and support networks, targeted resources focused on health and well-being, and stability and financial security. But service models are often not designed with young adults in mind, and tailored strategies can better support them on successful pathways to adulthood. These investments outside of the criminal legal system can support people who have experienced of arrest, supervision, or incarceration and also reduce the likelihood of such involvement altogether.