Can the ‘Wisdom of a Second Look’ Curb America’s Appetite for Harsh Sentences?

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Photo by Joshua Davis via Flickr

As we celebrate Second Chances Month, recognizing the importance of redemption and rehabilitation, over a dozen state legislatures are considering laws that would permit review of decades-long sentences, expand compassionate release, or create other vehicles to revisit past extreme sentences.

It’s about time.

After decades of escalating punishments and mandatory minimum sentences, our nation incarcerates at a rate second to none.

These excessive sentences – with little flexibility to consider how and if individuals change – have become the norm in many cases and resulted in a correctional system bursting at the seams.

Life sentences are doled out routinely, and have been for years, with no consideration of the consequences – for the individuals sentenced, their community, or taxpayers. And communities of color are most significantly impacted given the deeply troubling role systemic racism plays in deciding whose life is thrown away.

Karl Racine

Karl Racine

People of color receive disproportionately harsh punishments, and two-thirds of those serving life sentences today are Black or brown.

The result of these practices is a bloated prison population, unnecessarily crowded with mostly middle-aged and elderly people of color. That’s why we have joined over 60 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders, in a joint statement released to mark Second Chances Month, in calling on our colleagues and policy leaders to end the use of extreme sentences, and create mechanisms to provide second chances to the many individuals behind bars who pose no danger to the community.

“Thirty years of deterrence studies have shown no evidence that the threat or imposition of harsher sentences deters crime,” the statement said. “Moreover, research shows it is often unnecessary to incarcerate individuals who commit harm in their youth into and past middle age.”

In this fragile moment, when trust in our criminal legal system has been shaken, those reforms are particularly critical.

Hundreds of thousands of people are behind bars in our nation, with no hope for release, even though many have served sentences longer than those imposed in other Western countries and are well past the age when they might pose a threat to public safety.

Over 200,000 individuals in our prisons are 55 and over, and keeping them incarcerated costs over $14 billion a year. Absent dramatic changes, that population is projected to double within the next decade, escalating costs with no additional public safety benefit.

Reform-minded prosecutors are scaling back incarceration by limiting the offenses for which they will pursue prison sentences, avoiding the application of mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements, and reducing the length of prison terms that they seek.

While these efforts are essential, they are not enough to address our system of mass incarceration. Most people in prison have few mechanisms to seek release once they no longer pose a danger to our communities.

We need reforms akin to those enacted in the District of Columbia, California, and Washington State, which provide people who have served lengthy prison terms a chance to seek early release. Not a guarantee of release, but an opportunity to receive a second chance when incarceration is no longer in the public’s best interest. And we need prosecutors and judges committed to implementing these reforms.

miriam krinsky

Miriam Krinsky

We must acknowledge the immense loss of human potential when we lock people up for life. We continue to incarcerate countless people who have transformed their lives while behind bars, including some who committed their offenses as children.

There is no basis to conclude that the commission of a crime, regardless of its nature, should define a person forever. Indeed, many people have received early release through the passage of the overwhelming bi-partisan First Step Act, or in the District of Columbia, which provided people the ability to petition for early release after serving 15 years, if they were convicted of a crime committed before they were 25 years old.

People grow and change, and our criminal legal system cannot dispense justice without a means to address that undeniable truth.

Research and data have consistently cast doubt on the claims that severe, lengthy sentences deter crime or promote public safety – presumptions that led to the escalation of three strikes and other “tough on crime” laws. Similarly, despite claims to the contrary, enacting sensible, data-driven second look policies in no way undermines crime survivors or discounts the seriousness of the underlying offense.

Indeed, many survivors support reform. They understand that extreme sentences don’t make communities safer and that investing in treatment and prevention is a better use of public resources. And survivors are not served when scarce taxpayer dollars are spent on incarceration past the point of any public safety value, rather than investing in resources and services survivors need to heal.

It is time to end our obsession with punishment and create a criminal system that prioritizes rehabilitation.

Kevin Ring

Kevin Ring

A handful of states across the country are debating or have recently passed legislation that allows for revisiting past sentences in the interests of justice. Others are considering expanding opportunities for parole or compassionate release.

The time is ripe for these reforms.

We can, working together, chart a way forward that preserves scarce public resources, protects public safety, and treats everyone with humanity.

Additional Reading: “America’s ‘Era of Punitive Excess’ Must End: CriminologistsThe Crime Report April 14, 2021.

Karl A. Racine is the attorney general for the District of Columbia. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor. Kevin Ring is president of FAMM, a nonprofit justice reform advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

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