Reconsidering extreme sentences: “People deserve a second chance, because many grow and change,” Bazelon writes. “They robbed to feed an addiction and then got sober. They assaulted someone because they were mentally ill and then got treatment and stabilized. They mature as they age beyond their teens and early 20s.”
In multiple states, legislatures are considering measures to introduce meaningful parole consideration for those serving life sentences. In The Appeal: Political Report, Daniel Nichanian looked at efforts in Vermont and Massachusetts to end life without parole sentences and replace them with meaningful consideration after 25 years. In Pennsylvania, a measure to introduce the possibility of parole for people serving life without parole did not advance last year but it did get support from Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing Project and the Campaign to End Life Imprisonment noted that the Vermont bill includes sentences that are not formally life without parole but, in practice, would send someone to prison for the rest of their life. She also urged states to go further. “A progressive state like Vermont, which has relatively few lifers, could establish itself as a leader by limiting sentences to at most 20 years,” she told the Political Report.
Elder parole: Last month, State Senator Brad Holyman and Jose Saldana of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign described the effect of incarcerating people for decades, even life:
“Between January 2011 and May 2018, 675 elder New Yorkers and more than 1,000 people of all ages have died in a New York state prison. Over the last 20 years, the number of incarcerated older New Yorkers has more than doubled, from 4,706 to greater than 10,000.” These numbers have gone up even while the state’s prison population has fallen by 30 percent, making the elderly a rapidly increasing percentage of those in prison. And for the people in prison who have demonstrated their capacity for change and to contribute to their communities, release “would mean a new lease on life — one in which their extensive contributions could positively serve people in communities throughout New York and enhance public safety.
The Democrat-controlled New York State Legislature is considering an elder parole bill to make anyone who has served 15 years in prison and is age 55 or older eligible for consideration for release on parole.
Clemency: “Any time a prosecutor endorses clemency, that’s a pretty persuasive argument for me,” former Washington Governor Chris Gregoire told The Appeal in November. “Prosecutors and defense counsel can grant you a whole lot more perspective on the case, the individual, and the circumstances [of their offense] than the record alone would tell you.” Seattle chief prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who has moved for 21 commutations or resentencings, told The Appeal last year: “I always thought there had to be some sweet spot between 15 months and forever.” For her article last week, Bazelon spoke to Satterberg. “Our obligation to do justice continues to go backward as well as forward,” he told her. “Yes, we’ll have failures, but one way to manage that is more re-entry support for people.”
Death penalty: Several state legislatures considered bills this year to abolish the death penalty. Three states continue to make progress. In New Hampshire, a bill to repeal has cleared one house of the legislature and looks likely to clear the other, potentially with enough votes to overcome a veto by the governor. In Washington, where a court found the death penalty, as administered, to be unconstitutional last October, the legislature also looks likely to pass a law abolishing capital punishment. And finally, in Nebraska, where lawmakers previously approved a bill to repeal the death penalty in 2015 before it was overturned in a referendum, the legislature will soon vote again on a bill to end capital punishment in the state.
Record expungement: One in 3 people in the U.S.—between 70 million and 100 million—have criminal records. In November, the Center for American Progress noted that “9 in 10 employers, 4 in 5 landlords, and 3 in 5 colleges” use background checks as a screening mechanism, making a criminal record a barrier to employment, housing, and education. And the effects are multigenerational; it is estimated that nearly half of all children in the U.S. have a parent with a criminal record. Recent reforms that make the expungement of criminal records more widely available and automate expungement are a “win-win for everyone,” the center notes.
In California last week, chief prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Joaquin counties announced plans to automatically dismiss or reduce approximately 54,000 marijuana-related convictions. At the state level, Pennsylvania passed a “Clean Slate” law last year providing for automatic sealing and multiple states are considering automatic expungement measures. Last month, Utah became the latest state, adopting a law that would automate expungement for most misdemeanor charges, provided a specified number of years have passed without additional convictions. In California, where 8 million people have criminal records, legislators have introduced the most ambitious legislation yet. The measure, Assembly Bill 1076, which is endorsed by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, would allow for the automatic expungement of misdemeanor convictions and convictions for felonies considered nonviolent.