A wave of legislation tackles extreme sentencing across the country

25 states have introduced "second look" laws which reexamine people's extreme sentences for release, according to a new report from The Sentencing Project

A new report, “A Second Look at Justice,” from The Sentencing Project dives into legislation across the country that looks to address and reduce 100,000s of people in prison due to overzealous sentencing laws. These incarcerated individuals were mostly targeted by the War on Drugs. Some facts about who they are:

  • Over 200,000 people in U.S. prisons were serving life sentences in 2020.

  • That’s more people than were in prison with any sentence in 1970.

  • Close to half of the life sentenced population is Black.

  • Almost one third is age 55 or older.

Who’s in on it: 25 states, including Minnesota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Florida; over 60 elected prosecutors and law enforcement officials; and a federal bill has bipartisan support.

“In the era of mass incarceration, lawmakers and prosecutors have dealt out unnecessarily harsh punishments to millions of people who are largely Black and Latinx,” Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project and author of the new report said in a press release.

“Tens of thousands of people in prisons pose little threat to public safety, but have no hope of getting released. Second look legislation enables reconsideration of sentences now recognized as unjust and ineffective, allowing better investments to promote public safety.” 

“These bills have enormous potential to significantly shrink our prison population and tackle its racial disparities,” their press release said. The report goes in depth on three specific efforts:

California’s 2018 law (Assembly Bill 2942) which allows district attorneys to initiate resentencings.

  • Prosecutors are currently undoing long sentences with this law. Los Angeles County announced a sentence review unit for all who have served over 15 years.

  • It gained support across the board from prosecutors and advocates alike.

Washington, DC’s Second Look Amendment Act (2020) which allows those who committed crimes under the age of 25 to petition for resentencing after 15 years of imprisonment.

  • This act makes up to 29% of people imprisoned with DC convictions eventually eligible for resentencing.

  • DC Attorney General Karl Racine, Council Judiciary Chair Charles Allen, and Corrections Director Quincy Booth all recommended expanding the reform to all everyone past 10 years in prison.

New York’s Elder Parole bill which would allow people aged 55 plus who served 15 or more years in prison to receive a parole hearing.

  • It’s ongoing but gained traction during the push to release people from inside during the pandemic. Brooklyn’s district attorney supports the bill.

“People are finally waking up to the horrors of our mass incarceration system. Second-look legislation provides a powerful way to dismantle this system while protecting public safety,” Amy Fettig, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, said in the press release.

“Ultimately, we want to see a 20-year cap on prison sentences. All people, except in rare cases, deserve a chance for freedom.” 

Read the full report here.

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