The End of Mass Incarceration Is Within Reach | Opinion

This month, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) advanced major legislation that would allow courts to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated people serving long prison terms. The move comes just weeks after the pair moved forward a bill extending compassionate release to the oldest and longest-serving individuals in federal prisons.

Bills like these, which offer a second look at unjust prison sentences, are an important step toward reducing mass incarceration—and we urge Congress to adopt them quickly.

But we must go further to achieve justice and equity. For us, this means enacting an automatic sentence review process after no more than 15 years of imprisonment. Bold and necessary reforms like this will reduce our prison population, address racial disparities and create a more humane and effective criminal justice system.

Second Look legislation is not new—in fact, it is part of a national trend. Over the past several years, lawmakers in 25 states have introduced Second Look legislation.

A new report from The Sentencing Project underscores why these reforms must pass and why policymakers should be encouraged—when it is appropriate—to push for sentence reviews after 10 years. For far too long, our criminal legal system has doled out extreme sentences without any evidence that they make us safer—decimating Black and brown communities and shutting doors of opportunity for many.

Today, more than 200,000 individuals are serving life sentences, exceeding the entire U.S. prison population in 1970—and making the U.S. a global outlier in the number of people behind bars. And one in five Black men in prison is serving a life sentence.

Many former "tough on crime"-era politicians and thinkers have expressed regrets about their respective roles in fostering this mass incarceration system. More importantly, many of them have also acknowledged the urgent need for reform. To reverse this trend, we have to follow the data.

Extensive criminological research shows that extreme sentences fail to prevent crime or bolster public safety. In fact, people released after decades of imprisonment have extremely low recidivism rates, especially those convicted of serious violent crimes.

Consider one analysis of people paroled in Michigan with convictions for second-degree murder, manslaughter, or a sex offense. The study, conducted by the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, revealed that 99 percent of paroled people were not re-imprisoned for a similar offense during the following three years. This group was also far less likely to be re-imprisoned for any offense than the general paroled population.

Mount Tamalpais rises above San Quentin Prison
Mount Tamalpais rises above San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Despite mountains of research proving that people age out of crime and that elderly people pose an incredibly low threat to public safety, the U.S. spends an extraordinary amount of taxpayer dollars incarcerating older people. Three in 10 people serving life sentences are 55 or older.

What's more, countless formerly incarcerated people who have served long prison terms have successfully returned to their communities as leaders, advocates and agents of change. Many now lead programs targeted at crime prevention and safety.

Take Tyrone Walker, who mentored and tutored dozens of young men in prison and now directs re-entry services at Georgetown's Prisons & Justice Initiative.

Halim Flowers self-published 11 books while in prison, and has gone on to win multiple competitive fellowships following his release. He is now working to uplift the stories of those who have experienced the criminal legal system firsthand.

Kareem McCraney earned an associate degree in paralegal studies while in prison and now mentors young people in Washington, D.C.

These men, all released pursuant to D.C.'s recently-passed Second Look law, illuminate the successes that could be replicated nationwide if federal and state lawmakers pass similar legislation. D.C.'s law gives people in prison who committed crimes in their youth the chance to be released after serving 15 years in prison if they can show they have been rehabilitated.

Second Look laws will not end mass incarceration on their own. Policymakers must couple these reforms with improved access to legal counsel during the re-sentencing process and investments in rehabilitative and re-entry programming. We also must address racial disparities in re-sentencing and be innovative in our response to crime.

Ultimately, Second Look laws—particularly ones with automatic reviews after no more than 15 years—can lead to more humane and commonsense sentences, leaving our communities safer and saving taxpayer dollars.

Second Look reforms are grounded in an unambiguous premise: people grow, people change and people deserve second chances. Our laws should reflect this reality.

Karl A. Racine is attorney general for the District of Columbia.

Amy Fettig is executive director of The Sentencing Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.