In 2017, the D.C. Council passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), which allows younger offenders to petition for a modification to their extreme sentences. This legislation was followed by the Second Look Amendment Act of 2019, which became law in April 2021.
SPA Adjunct Professorial Lecturer Destiny Singh, an attorney who teaches in the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology, recently secured the release of a resident who petitioned under this law. Her client, Ned McAllister, began a life sentence at 21, and served 27 years before his November release.
Singh is the deputy director of the Second Look Project, a D.C. nonprofit formed in 2017. The Second Look Project represents people eligible for sentence modifications under the IRRA, recruits and trains lawyers interested in furthering this work, and supports the development of similar laws in other jurisdictions.
Singh’s career began at American University, where she attended the Washington College of Law. Though initially interested in international human rights law, she could not argue when a professor suggested that her true passion may be juvenile criminal defense. After graduation, she spent years as a public defender in Florida, litigating over 50 jury trials.
“Traditional public defenders' offices are very much emergency rooms,” she recalled. “You're in the trenches. What brought me to this work was always the systemic issues that my clients face, and honestly, that I face as a Black woman, and my family faces. I felt that I wasn't able to tackle systemic issues because I was so far down into the trenches. I needed to focus on each of my clients one-by-one.”
After some time off, Singh looked to return to D.C., with its environment of progressive thinkers and advocates. In 2020, a friend recruited her to the Second Look Project, where she found the opportunity to help clients while advancing systemic reforms.
Much the project’s work depends on an understanding of the unique brain science of juveniles, as established by Miller v. Alabama (2012), in which the Supreme Court deemed life sentences without parole to be unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
“They are inherently different, and less culpable, than adults,” said Singh. “Following that lineage of cases, the D.C. council allowed people who committed crimes when they were under 18 to petition the court for resentencing. . . Now, it is for people under the age of 25, because we know that your brain continues to mature well into your mid-20s."
The Second Look Project also recruits attorneys and trains them work on behalf of young offenders outside of D.C., which was the first area to implement such expansive legislation.
“As more states start to accept, ingest, and acknowledge both the brain science and this Supreme Court case law, we are starting to [help] other states and other jurisdictions adopt similar legislation,” she said.
Ned McAllister came of age in the tumultuous D.C. of the late 80s and 90s, with its skyrocketing crime rate and gun violence, in a neglectful home.
“He had to fend for himself,” Singh shared. “He started selling drugs at 13, to feed himself, and to feed his younger brother. He got enamored with this life of power and money.”
He was arrested at 20 for a non-homicide offense (assault with intent to kill), convicted, and sentenced to life. As the violent D.C. prison system was dismantled and residents transferred to federal prison, Ned withstood the chaos and aged out of crime. He trained as a carpenter's apprentice and led a mentoring and training program for younger inmates. Singh describes him as thoughtful, hardworking, and peaceful.
“Seeing him interact with his wife (whom he hasn't physically touched in two years because of the pandemic), hearing him on the phone with his son––just being a part of that experience is really moving. It's an honor to be a part of something so personal, and to walk with him along that journey.”
Ned’s son was born soon after his arrest, and so has never seen his father in the community. This is just one example of what incarcerated youth lose as time passes outside. Crucially, advances in technology have changed even the simplest of modern functions. Newly released prisoners are expected to navigate the internet to arrange for help and services, a difficult concept for one incarcerated well before the advent of personal computers.
“I ask my clients what they want to do when they get out, and they are things that we really take for granted,” said Singh. “My clients have never been to a Walmart or held a cell phone. One wants to have white sugar in his coffee. They don't get the things that we consider normal.”
The Second Look Project also advocates for wider changes in the criminal justice system. Its current legislative priorities include a recent criminal reform bill by the D.C. Council called Second Look for All, which would make releases more common and change the nature of post-release supervision. The approach argues that the interests of justice face diminishing returns over long incarcerations: neither the public nor the prisoner benefits after a certain point.
“Lengthy sentences don't work,” Singh insisted. “People with life sentences have no possibility of getting out. Why would you want to change? Why would you want to work on yourself if there's no reason to do it? Hope is a powerful thing, and it contributes to the safety of all of us.”
Singh advocates for comprehensive criminal justice reform at a minimum, but describes herself as an abolitionist, calling for the dismantling of harmful institutions such as prisons and police.
“I very much believe that incarcerating people is not the way that we solve the problem of harm,” she explained. “I say ‘harm’ and not ‘crime,’ because I think our definition of crime changes as we change as a society. Meanwhile, prison is inherently harmful. We throw people away and hope that our community is safer, without ever addressing the reason they were in the streets in the first place, and without ever addressing the violence and trauma happening within the prisons.”
With a day job so substantively and emotionally hefty, most would never consider a second, classroom responsibility. However, when Claire Griggs, director of SPA’s Politics, Policy and Law Scholars Program, recruited Singh to AU, she saw another chance for advocacy. She is currently teaching JLC-103, Critical Issues in Justice.
“Some of the most influential people in my life are from American University,” she said. “These people challenged the way that I thought. I wanted to be a part of that community, so that I could work towards helping other people expand their perspectives and their worldview.”
To do this, Singh depends upon the power of stories, like Ned’s, inviting students to approach the subject of justice from a place of empathy and understanding.
“We can spout statistics and facts all day, but until you get to know someone, and until that person sounds more like your brother than a random person off of the street, I think stories are what change our minds. Stories are what connects us. I think the more we amplify each other's stories, the more proximate we are to each other, the more likely we are to hold hands and work together to create a better future for all of us.”