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 of 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 to a convict who committed a horrendous murder or sexual attack and continues the violent ways in prison.
Over the past 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 in many cases, even for those who may have simply accompanied another person who pulled a trigger or sold large quantities of drugs. These prisoners — especially those in their teens and early 20s whose brains science tells us are not yet fully formed — are truly doomed for the rest of their lives.
Now decades after these draconian sentencing policies went into effect, we have arrived at a more enlightened way of looking at prison punishment. One of the most intriguing reform ideas being floated is the so-called 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The American Law Institute, a learned group of lawyers, judges and academics, undertook revising their outdated Model Penal Code of 1962.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 another judicial decision-maker is appointed to review each inmate application for sentence modification. Only those who have served at least 15 years of their sentence are permitted to apply. And naturally, the convicts' behavior in prison, list of academic or prison accomplishments, and participation in job training and other self-rehabilitation efforts will factor into 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 prisoners have reformed their behavior, expressed honest remorse, done good works within the population and exhibited the desire to live a better life, what good does it do to keep them 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 orgy-like period of mandatory oversentencing. The odious three-strikes 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, he 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 that downsized their prison populations the most — California, New Jersey and New York — and discovered they had "outperformed the nationwide crime drop in most categories."
Governors in at least nine 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 that every prisoner who undergoes this rigorous review and is deemed fit to be released means the state pays less in incarcerations 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.