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'Second Look' Case Illustrates Long Odds and System's Pitfalls

Recently enacted "second look" laws and local sentencing review units in certain cities exist to correct excessive and disproportionate sentences for crimes committed by young offenders. In a three-part series on those laws, and on one of 49 people freed under Washington, D.C.'s second-look law, The Imprint tells the story of Cordell Miller, whose adolescence was derailed by juvenile incarceration and family abuse, ultimately leading to a sentence of 97 years to life for a triple murder he participated in at age 17. He was released after serving 30 years with a mostly clean record, only to be deported to his native Jamaica.

D.C.'s Second Look Amendment Act, passed in 2021, is one of several that have changed the prospects for adults like Miller. The D.C. law allows incarcerated people who were convicted before age 25 and have served at least 15 years of their sentence to appeal to a judge for resentencing. James Zeigler, founder and executive director of Second Look Project, describes the law as making D.C. “a more just and equitable place, and to try and remediate the mistakes of our overly punitive past.” Federal prosecutors have argued that laws like these free “dangerous criminals” and deny victims a “sense of finality.” Achieving freedom is no small feat. Defendants have to illustrate that they aren’t a danger to society and that a new sentence would be in the “interest of justice.” They must show they’ve been rehabilitated in prison, kept a clean disciplinary record and provide statements from supporters. Their attorneys must effectively counter arguments from victims and prosecutors. Before ruling, D.C. judges must also consider something that sets these cases apart from more typical parole and resentencing decisions: “the diminished culpability of juveniles and people under age 25, as compared to that of adults, and the hallmark features of youth.” Miller's court-appointed lawyer argued successfully that he was "an entirely different person" by the time of his 2022 resentencing hearing, a view seconded by Marc Howard, of Georgetown University's Prisons and Justice Initiative, who described Miller as “extraordinary,” and “a committed leader.” Over the strenuous objections of prosecutors, a judge granted his petition. Miller walked straight into three months of immigration detention before his deportation last April, where he faced a new set of obstacles without any of the reentry supports he would have had in the U.S.


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