Sen­tenc­ing re­form needs se­cond look

Albuquerque Journal - - OP-ED - Diane Di­mond

Do you be­lieve in se­cond chances? To be more spe­cific, do you be­lieve in se­cond chances for con­victed felons, even those sen­tenced to life in prison or life with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role?

Your an­swer prob­a­bly de­pends on details about the orig­i­nal crime com­mit­ted, right? You might say “Yes” to a se­cond chance for a young adult who was sen­tenced for ac­ces­sory par­tic­i­pa­tion in a felony and “No” if the con­vict com­mit­ted a hor­ren­dous mur­der or sex­ual at­tack and con­tin­ues their vi­o­lent ways in prison.

Over the last few years, a na­tional de­bate has evolved about how to make prison sen­tenc­ing more pur­pose­ful, thought­ful and not just su­per-puni­tive. A dif­fer­ent type of sen­tenc­ing based on re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties and not just ret­ri­bu­tion, as prose­cu­tors and courts have of­ten fo­cused on these last many decades.

It is ob­vi­ous that the past prac­tice of hand­ing down so many life sen­tences has added to the mas­sive prison over­crowd­ing we see to­day. Manda­tory sen­tenc­ing laws forced judges to im­pose life with­out pa­role (LWOP) in many cases, even for those who sim­ply may have ac­com­pa­nied an­other per­son who pulled a trigger or sold large quan­ti­ties of drugs. These pris­on­ers — es­pe­cially those in their teens and early 20s with brain func­tions that sci­ence tells us are not yet fully formed — are truly doomed for the rest of their lives.

Decades af­ter these dra­co­nian sen­tenc­ing poli­cies went into ef­fect, we have now ar­rived at a more en­light­ened way of look­ing at prison pun­ish­ment. One of the most in­trigu­ing re­form ideas be­ing floated is the so­called Se­cond Look Sen­tenc­ing plan.

The Amer­i­can Law In­sti­tute, a learned group of lawyers, judges and aca­demics, un­der­took re­vis­ing their out­dated Model Pe­nal Code of 1962. In the first ever update to the code, the ALI added a rec­om­men­da­tion that state leg­is­la­tures adopt Se­cond Look Sen­tenc­ing.

What is it? In short, it gives con­victs who are serv­ing long prison sen­tences — even life with­out pa­role — at least a chance at hav­ing their term re­duced. Once the idea is adopted by a state, a ju­di­cial panel or other ju­di­cial de­ci­sion­maker would be ap­pointed to re­view each in­mate’s ap­pli­ca­tion for sen­tence mod­i­fi­ca­tion. Only those who have served at least 15 years of their sen­tence are per­mit­ted to ap­ply. And, nat­u­rally, the con­vict’s be­hav­ior in prison, list of aca­demic or prison ac­com­plish­ments, par­tic­i­pa­tion in job train­ing and other self-re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ef­forts will fac­tor in whether they’ll be granted a de­crease in sen­tence or even have their sen­tence re­duced to time served.

Keep­ing peo­ple be­hind bars for­ever just be­cause a long-ago judge had to fol­low a now ar­chaic law forc­ing a sen­tence of life in prison makes no sense. It reeks of pure re­venge, which is not the Amer­i­can way. If a pris­oner has reformed their be­hav­ior, ex­pressed hon­est re­morse, done good works within the pop­u­la­tion and shows the de­sire to live a bet­ter life, what good does it do to keep him or her in prison for an­other decade or two? Wouldn’t it be bet­ter to have them re­join so­ci­ety as a con­tribut­ing tax­payer?

Let’s face it, the U.S. went through an ill-ad­vised, or­gy­like pe­riod of manda­tory over-sen­tenc­ing. The odi­ous Three Strike laws gave “per­sis­tent of­fend­ers” — those al­ready found guilty of two or more pre­vi­ous felonies — long and of­ten life sen­tences for their third of­fense, even if it was for sim­ply steal­ing a piece of pizza. Yes, that re­ally hap­pened to a Cal­i­for­nia man, Jerry De­wayne Williams. Hav­ing al­ready served time for rob­bery, drug pos­ses­sion and unau­tho­rized use of a ve­hi­cle, he stole a slice from a group of chil­dren. Be­cause of his pri­ors, Williams got a sen­tence of 25 years to life.

Do some con­victs de­serve to re­main in prison un­til they die? Yes, some will al­ways be a threat to pub­lic safety and should re­main locked up. But, I be­lieve, many who have al­ready served 20, 30 or 40 years are past their crime-prone years and have paid their debt to so­ci­ety.

For those who worry that early re­lease means more crime, well, the facts say oth­er­wise. The Sen­tenc­ing Project stud­ied the is­sue and found the re­cidi­vism rate of early re­leasers was no higher than those who served their full sen­tences. The non­profit also sur­veyed the three states which down­sized their prison pop­u­la­tions the most — Cal­i­for­nia, New Jersey and New York — and dis­cov­ered they had “out­per­formed the na­tion­wide crime drop in most cat­e­gories.”

Al­ready, gov­er­nors in at least 9 states have com­muted the sen­tences of mul­ti­ple pris­on­ers serv­ing life with­out pa­role. Some lif­ers have now gone through the process and won their free­dom. And re­al­ize, ev­ery pris­oner who un­der­goes this rig­or­ous re­view and is deemed fit to re­lease means the state pays less in in­car­cer­a­tion costs.

With the av­er­age an­nual cost of hold­ing an in­mate rang­ing be­tween $25,000 and $60,000, de­pend­ing on the state, the cost ben­e­fit of re­leas­ing those who have truly re­ha­bil­i­tated them­selves is ob­vi­ous.

Ev­ery state in the union should adopt this Se­cond Look Sen­tenc­ing pro­gram.


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