The federal justice system should provide tools to help authorities assess incarcerated individuals’ capacity for rehabilitation, argues a forthcoming article in the Cardozo Law Review.
Such a “second look” would compensate for the fact that prosecutors, judges and probation officers are generally incapable of correctly gauging a defendant’s future risk of recidivism and ability to change—and as a result often subject offenders to unnecessarily long sentences, wrote Shon Hopwood, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine who, after having been convicted of a serious crime, has the capacity to become rehabilitated and redeemed,” Hopwood wrote.
“Character is not static, people change, and the law must recognize this reality.”
As an example, Hopwood cites the story of Matthew Charles, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for distributing crack cocaine based on his prior record of violent behavior. While serving his sentence, Charles took college courses, began studying the Bible, and even became a law clerk in the prison law library—guiding his fellow inmates with legal matters.
After his sentence was reduced by nine years in 2016, Charles returned home as a productive member of his community. But after two years with no incident, a different judge reimposed the nine-year sentence and returned Charles to federal custody.
When the First Step Act was passed in 2018, Charles was finally able to apply for resentencing and was ultimately freed.
Similar stories of rehabilitation have been recognized since President Donald Trump signed the Act, which has proven to be a big step in reducing mass incarceration. Over 1,000 federal prisoners were granted sentence reductions averaging 29.4 percent in the first four months since the Act was signed.
Beyond the First Step Act
But most criminal justice reformers consider the First Step Act only “the starting point” for legislation that recognizes individuals’ capacities to change while behind bars, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Similarly, Hopwood argued that a “second look” should be an important element of future justice reforms.
One tool that can be used, according to Hopwood, is the compassionate release statute which, in tandem with the First Step Act, allows federal judges to effectively reduce sentences in cases presenting “extraordinary or compelling reasons.”
Additionally, U.S. attorneys can reduce or dismiss charges for prisoners with lengthy sentences.
Congress could go even further, argued Hopwood, by creating a “true second look provision” that would force federal judges to re-evaluate sentences after prisoners serve 10 years in prison. As a last resort, if the judicial system fails to relieve prisoners who have demonstrated rehabilitation, the president should use the clemency process—which, according to Hopwood, must be revised—to release them.
Hopwood claimed these methods for sentence reduction not only benefit prisoners with a second chance but also benefit the communities they return to.
“There is little reason to continue warehousing people who have been adequately punished by serving long sentences and who are no longer a danger to society,” wrote Hopwood.
“The social costs to the families left behind, the loss of human capital and productivity, and the need to give people a second chance at redemption all favor identifying people like Matthew Charles and releasing them.”
Read the full Cardozo Law Review article here.
Yotam Ponte is a TCR news intern.