It’s becoming more common for the justice system to ease penalties for lesser offenders, as last week’s mass release of inmates in Oklahoma indicated.
Largely forgotten in many reform efforts, however, are the 200,000-plus inmates serving life terms, many of whom actually do win their freedom after repeated efforts to be paroled.
Two of them told criminologists this week that greater attention should be paid to their special reentry needs, noting that many more “lifers” deserve freedom.
The occasion was a panel discussion at the American Society of Criminology, meeting in San Francisco, organized by Marc Mauer of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, who argues that 20 years should be a maximum term behind bars except for those who are a demonstrable threat to public safety.
Sam Lewis of the California-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition noted that 5,000 lifers were released by former California Gov. Jerry Brown; nevertheless many long-term prisoners are denied access to prisoner rehabilitation programs, on the apparent assumption that they never will get out.
In fact, those who eventually are freed boast a very low rate of repeat criminality, said Lewis, who was locked up for 24 years before his release in 2008. He argued that many former lifers, for whom taxpayers spent millions of dollars to house and feed, can be good citizens.
Another panelist, criminologist Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, agreed with Lewis, saying that what surprises her about meeting people serving life sentences is that they “try to take advantage of every opportunity” to improve themselves.
Kerry Myers, who was released from Louisiana’s Angola Prison after 26 years behind bars for a crime he denies committing, says the U.S. sentencing system often ignores the fact that most people change markedly over two decades.
They aren’t the same people they were when they were in their teens or early 20s, he said.
Now that at least some lifers finally are re-entering society, Myers says their lack of knowledge is “astounding” —from not being able to use an iPhone to being mystified by the healthcare system.
After years in the sheltered prison system, a typical inmate may be baffled by the choices available in modern grocery stores and is likely ignorant of the new social norms surrounding practices like sexual harassment, Myers says.
Lewis noted that one issue facing many returning inmates is whether they can fit in with their families, who will expect them to find housing and jobs, among other big challenges.
“The pressure to succeed can be overwhelming,” he said.
Louisiana’s Myers contended that only a vast minority of current prisoners are true career violent criminals who deserve to be locked up for lengthy terms.
The reality, said Ashley Nellis, a Sentencing Project colleague of Mauer, is that most lifers are not winning quick releases and that the justice system treats even 20-year terms like a “walk in the park.”
Nellis talked to The Crime Report this year about a book she wrote with Mauer calling for shorter sentences.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.