By Talia Kruger and Alexis Rios-Jimenez
WASHINGTON DC- In an open letter addressed to the Council of the District of Columbia, The Sentencing Project, a national organization focused on criminal justice research and advocacy, urged the council to pass the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 (RCCA).
In the letter, the organization asserts its steadfast support for the bill and emphasizes that its passage would “bring D.C’s criminal penalties closer in line with criminological evidence on public safety, improve fairness and proportionality and advance racial justice in the criminal legal system.”
The provisions contained in the bill are intended to aid in the reduction of what the organization describes as “extreme prison sentences,” explaining they are a hindrance to public safety and inextricably imbued with racial bias.
Of the many provisions contained in the bill that The Sentencing Project champions, TSP points out four important features of the RCCA in particular, highlighting the positive impact they would have as the result of “years of research, community feedback, criminal legal stakeholder input, and negotiation.”
The first of the provisions described in the letter is the reduction of most mandatory minimum sentences with the exception of first degree murder, which would carry a minimum sentence of 24 years.
Supported by a slew of nationally recognized organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Law Institute, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the introduction of this aspect of the bill would inarguably prove to be a significant driver for reform in the justice system and establish a new model that could spark a national conversation on the elimination of all mandatory minimum sentences.
As described in the letter, mandatory sentencing “has been a key driver of mass incarceration by dramatically increasing the lengths of imposed sentences, and has contributed to DC ranking eighth among states in its incarceration rate.”
The letter then addressed a section of the RCCA which would restrict maximum sentences to 45 years, which it explains would “still be a ‘de facto’ life sentence by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.”
Pushing for the elimination of life-without-parole sentences since 2004, TSP has allied with 200 organizations in recommending that maximum sentences be capped at 20 years, except in unusual circumstances due to a strong belief that current maximum sentences are “cruel, costly, and counterproductive to public safety.”
Further, research results are presented in TSP letter showing individuals tend to “age out of crime,” after peaking from the “late teenage years and beginning a gradual decline in the early 20’s.”
The intent behind this provision, explained TSP, would be to ensure that incurring the massive costs of incarcerating individuals for a prolonged period are avoided by keeping individuals only as long as they present a statistical probability of reoffending or of posing a continued threat to community safety.
Another provision the RCCA posits is the expansion of the scope of “Second Look” inquests, which would initiate sentencing reconsideration for all adults who have been imprisoned for 20 years.
The Sentencing Project explains this policy “is backed by the wealth of evidence that individuals age out of crime, and the concept of second look is endorsed by leading legal experts.”
One such endorsement says, “The Model Penal Code, for example, advises that everyone whose crime occurred at age 18 or older should be subject to judicial sentencing modification review after serving 15 years in prison.”
Another organization arguing for Second Look provisions is “The American Bar Association’s policy making body, the House of Delegates,” which “urges lawmakers to authorize courts to take a second look at criminal sentences after 10 years of imprisonment.”
The ABA explains: “In Washington, DC, 39 percent of the imprisoned population has already served at least 10 years.” It contends that while they support universal second look sentencing reconsideration after 10 years, the expansion of 20 years by the RCCA is “still an invaluable step in the right direction.”
The last provision that the RCCA would champion is the reduction of the scope and maximum penalty for felony murder.
The Sentencing Project explains, “Felony murder laws impose sentences associated with murder on people who neither intended to kill nor anticipated a death, and even on those who did not participate in a killing…these laws widen the net of extreme sentencing and are counterproductive to public safety. Felony murder laws also have particularly adverse impacts on people of color, young people, and women.”
The RCCA addresses problems relating to felony murder convictions by eliminating accomplice liability, a measure that would “significantly [narrow] its scope.”
Additionally, “By reclassifying felony murder from first- to second-degree murder, the RCCA also limits its potential punishment,” said The Sentencing Project, which advocates for a full repeal of the felony murder law, while noting the RCCA’s more modest reforms are “still a vital limitation on felony murder liability’s harmful impact.
“We urge the full Council to swiftly pass the RCCA. The RCCA is the impressive fruit of years of research, community feedback, criminal legal stakeholder input, and negotiation. Delaying its passage will only delay the fair administration of justice in the District,” said TSP.