2020 was a merciless year. But when the dust settles, it may be regarded as the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.
In December, lawmakers and prosecutors in three cities—the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and Los Angeles—instituted evidence-based reforms to scale back excessive prison terms for serious crimes.
Criminologists and legal experts have long stressed that reoffending rates decline with age and that long prison terms are ineffective crime deterrents. Prison sentences should be given a second look after people have served 10 to 15 years. With growing rejection of the racism in incarceration, scaling back excessive prison terms will enable effective investments in public safety, including violence prevention programs.
Melody Brown was a key advocate for the Second Look Amendment Act, a reform overwhelmingly approved by the DC Council. In 1995, Brown’s husband Jerome McDaniel was killed by a teenager, Bennie Floyd. For years, Brown wanted Floyd to “rot in hell” for turning her marriage into annual visits to a cemetery.
But she was moved by a letter from Floyd showing remorse and maturity, and by the example that her daughters set in forgiving him. “I’m rooting for him,” she now says of Floyd, whose release she ultimately supported under DC’s current Second Look law, which allows resentencing for crimes committed under age 18.
Once enacted, DC’s Second Look Amendment Act will allow people who committed their crimes under age 25 to petition for resentencing after 15 years of imprisonment. This reform builds on research establishing that, compared to adults, those who are still emerging into adulthood are “more impulsive, less emotionally mature, and less cognizant of the consequences of their actions.”
Legislators in over twenty states, including in Colorado, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as in Congress, have advanced second look bills.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in several cities, including Los Angeles and Baltimore, are creating sentencing review units asking judges to scale back excessive prison terms.
In his first day in office as Los Angeles’s newly elected District Attorney, George Gascón instructed his team to identify cases for resentencing among all who have served at least 15 years in prison. Following through on a campaign commitment, Gascón explained that scaling back long prison terms for rehabilitated adults can help the state free up resources to tackle homelessness, improve access to higher education, and make infrastructure repairs.
In Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby initiated sentencing reviews for people over age 60 who have served 25 years, and for those who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19 and have served over 25 years of a life sentence for a crime they committed under age 18. Prosecutors, Mosby explained, should repair the harm caused by their past support for “the epidemic of mass incarceration and racial inequality.”
For over a decade, many jurisdictions have tailored criminal justice reforms to nonviolent offenses. This work has been necessary, but insufficient to end mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on Black and other minority communities.
Unless we scale back excessive prison terms for serious offenses, including violent crimes which account for 50 percent of all crimes committed by people imprisoned today, the U.S. incarceration rate will perpetually outsize that of its peer countries.
People serving life sentences are a legacy of the tough-but not smart-on-crime era. One in seven people in U.S. prisons are serving a life sentence. Empirical research has found a “miniscule” recidivism rate for new crimes among those released from life sentences in states including California, New York, Michigan, and Maryland.
Tyrone Walker, a beneficiary of DC’s existing Second Look law, and advocate for its expansion, is an example of the untapped potential among people who await resentencing. During nearly 25 years of incarceration, he completed college coursework and mentored dozens of young men. Since his release, he has continued coaching young people to transform their lives, become a leader in criminal justice reform at the Justice Policy Institute, and rejoices in seeing his children and grandchildren. Walker once wrote, “I can do much more to change the lives of the next generation in my community, acting as a mentor, than locked up behind bars.” He was right.
DC, Baltimore, and LA’s reforms offer important models for the nation. But they leave some business unfinished. The sooner resentencing consideration is permitted by law, the sooner imprisoned people will be incentivized to focus on their rehabilitation. And while lawmakers and prosecutors should correct past injustices, they should also look forward to investing in preventing them in 2021, and beyond.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project.
Published at Tue, 12 Jan 2021 09:00:00 +0000