A Trump-Appointed Prosecutor Is Lobbying Against D.C.’s Modest Criminal Justice Reform


Professor John Pfaff’s research was cited in a Slate article about opposition to the Second Look Act of 2019 by U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu.

On Friday, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, issued a press release suggesting that the reform D.C. is now considering would let loose hundreds of “violent criminals” on the streets of D.C. The press release encouraged district residents to contact the bill’s sponsor and oppose it.

The bill that Liu, a Donald Trump appointee, attacked is the Second Look Act of 2019. This legislation marks another effort by the D.C. Council to address the district’s mass incarceration crisis. If D.C. were a state, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the nation. The district’s prisoners, who are disproportionately black, are mostly transferred to federal facilities, some far across the country.

These measures make good sense. An immense amount of research had proved that criminal violence is closely tied to youth. Scientists now know that the part of the brain that inhibits impulse and risky behavior does not fully develop until age 25. The Supreme Court has noted this fact in prohibiting the execution of juvenile offenders and curtailing juvenile sentences of life without parole. It has explained that “parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence”—that is, the early 20s. Young individuals are therefore “less culpable” due to their “immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity”; “less likely” to be deterred by “possible punishment”; and more likely to have “potential for rehabilitation.” D.C. lawmakers are not going rogue; they are taking a page from the Supreme Court.

As John Pfaff, author of Locked In and professor at Fordham Law School, has demonstrated, violence is a phase, not a state. Individuals in their mid- to late-teenage years are far more likely to commit a crime, but that propensity declines after their mid-20s and plummets once they reach 30. Those over the age of 40 are even more unlikely to commit a violent offense. Lengthy sentences for young offenders simply make no sense, as these individuals are all but certain to age out of violent behavior. The council’s reforms are a rational response to this evidence.

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