Mass incarceration plagues the American justice system, with 15 percent of today’s national prison population serving sentences of 50 years or more. However, according to a report from The Sentencing Project, over half of the states have introduced “Second Look” legislation to reduce extreme sentencing and dramatically cut prison populations.
“Ending mass incarceration in our lifetime will require reducing prison admissions and moderating prison terms for all crimes, including for violent crimes for which half of the U.S. prison population is imprisoned,” said the report released Wednesday.
Second Look Legislation allows for the reevaluation of lengthy sentences using criteria like age of the prisoners, character improvement and length of time served.
The approach is gaining momentum nationwide, as legislators in 25 states and Washington D.C. have recently introduced Second Look bills.
Why A Second Look?
Growing research and the prevalence of evidence shows that long prison terms are not just inhumane and ineffective; they’re counterproductive for public safety, said the report.
Recently, The Sentencing Project points out, leading experts and criminologists have recommended second look reforms, noting that reexamining prison sentences can help someone who is worthy of a second chance at life.
Moreover, existing legislation and ongoing campaigns recognize that a second look at an individual’s sentence must first come after a period of imprisonment, while meeting other criteria like age when the crime was committed, and their current age — all still staying in line with much of what the justice system already details as criteria when considering other factors like the risk of recidivism.
To add context to this potentially eligible demographic, The Sentencing Project’s preliminary analysis of the life-sentenced population in a group of 14 states in 2020 shows that 73 percent have already served at least 10 years; 27 percent committed their crime while under the age of 25; and 45 percent are currently over the age of 50.
Moreover, readdressing the sentences of people convicted of violent crimes is not unheard of, nor is it a threat to public safety, other sources make clear.
“Recidivism rates are lowest among those convicted of the most serious violent crimes for which people generally serve the longest sentences, sexual offenses and homicide,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Resentencing Support from Crime Survivors
The concept of reducing prison admissions and sentencing terms for individuals who committed violent offences has been controversial, but crime survivors within the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., a Washington, D.C.-based victim services and advocacy organization, supports their local reform efforts, according to the report.
Erin Palmer, a local leader and sexual violence survivor, guided her Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC)—among 40 elected commissions that advise the D.C. Council—to unanimously pass a resolution in support of the bill, and several other ANCs followed in her footsteps.
Similarly, Melody Brown, whose husband was tragically killed in 1995 by a then 16-year-old, supports second look reforms. She says her perspective from a victim advocacy standpoint deserves to be heard, without anyone speaking for her, The Sentencing Project report outlines.
“I support the Second Look Amendment Act without any reservations,” Brown is quoted saying, noting that the individual who killed her husband is remorseful and showing newfound maturity. “Keeping people in jail does not make us safer.”
Achieving the goal of sentencing reform will first require reformatting front-end sentencing laws and practices — such as abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing laws as recommended by President Joe Biden and countless other advocates, the report said.
Other recommendations for implementing effective second look policy include:
Instituting an automatic sentencing review process with a maximum of 10 years imprisonment;
Anticipating and intentionally monitoring and addressing racial and other disparities in resentencing;
Establishing clear assessment criteria and training, while requiring written explanations for resentencing denials; and,
Enabling crime survivors to provide input to ensure the resentencing process is transparent for all.
“Imagine if every state could enable nearly a third of people to have their sentences reconsidered — that could be huge for scaling back incarceration nationwide,” the authors conclude.
“Necessary reforms will take a better first look at criminal legal penalties going forward, and a second look at sentences already imposed for past crimes.”
The Sentencing Project is a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center working for decarceration or to reduce the use of incarceration in the United States and to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The full report can be accessed here.
Additional Reading: 1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Serving Life, Majority People of Color: Study
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.