We Need to Revisit Long Prison Sentences for Young Offenders

There’s no question: Our legal system loves long prison sentences. According to The Sentencing Project, the number of persons serving 10 year sentences or more has risen from 587,000 in 2000 to 773,000 between 2019 and 2020. These 773,000 individuals account for over half the U.S. prison population.

Extreme sentences are so widespread in America that even 10 years may seem like an acceptable punishment. However, it is woefully inadequate to punish serious crimes. But 10 years is an enormously long period of time – one in which people can experience profound growth, especially in their younger years.

That’s why we believe incarcerated people should have the opportunity to have their sentence re-evaluated after 10 years. American Bar Association passed a resolution advocating exactly that.

Be clear. However, this does not mean everyone can go to prison once they have been in the system for a decade. It just means giving incarcerated people the chance to show how they’ve changed and why they deserve a second look. A judge or another external entity would decide if the sentence should be reduced.

This model is very scientific. It is well-known that younger people are more likely than older persons to commit crime. But it’s important to know why. It’s largely because the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, problem-solving, and impulse control – does not fully develop until the mid-20s. So young people often exhibit immaturity, irresponsibility, recklessness, and susceptibility to negative influences and outside pressure – which the Supreme Court has recognized in cases involving extreme sentencing of youth. The 2010 Youth Extreme Sentence Act was passed. Graham v. Florida, for example, the Court wrote that because young people “have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment.”

It’s easy to see how many people would not dream of making the same choices a decade ago.

Research has shown that crime rates decline as people get older. It’s also clear that people released after decades of imprisonment rarely commit new crimes upon release, even those who had been convicted of the most serious crimes.

It’s not about proving mercy, but the whole community can benefit from the wealth of talent that is being held behind bars. While in prison, many incarcerated individuals take classes and learn new skills. Many also earn degrees. Many returning citizens serve as trustworthy messengers, helping to direct at-risk young people, interrupt violence and promote safety. They’re hard-working, tax-paying community members.

They can also save communities. Many people in prison have been removed from their parents and children for many years. A second look can help mothers and fathers return to their children and allow them to care for their aging parents.

Here’s a simple example of someone we believe is worthy of another chance. RC was only 17 years when an older man attacked his friend at a New York dice match. RC reacted to the attack by getting a gun, and fired a bullet that killed his friend. The judge referred to RC at sentencing as an irredeemable threat and sentenced him to 25-years to live. RC, a former prison mobility aide and sign language interpreter became a respected member of staff and prisoners ten years later. He remains in prison without the ability to be seen as the person he is, which makes him one of the few people who we’ve met that would make a good citizen out of prison.

It is becoming increasingly possible, thanks to the momentum. The Second Look Act was introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, and Rep. Karen Bass in 2019. It allows people who have been held for more than 10 years to file a petition to resentence a court. In the meantime, federal court judges are utilizing the First Step Act of 2018 – which made changes to compassionate release that enabled an unprecedented number of people serving long sentences to be re-sentenced during the pandemic. Washington, DC, allows those who committed crimes as emerging adults—under age 25—to petition for resentencing after 15 years of imprisonment. And states such as Oregon, Illinois, and California allow individuals serving lengthy sentences to demonstrate that they’ve earned an opportunity for another review.

We’ve changed an enormous amount as a society over the past decade. And yet, our legal system assumes that people can’t do the same. It is time to make this change. Let’s build on the momentum and ensure all incarcerated people get a second look after 10 years.

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