Resentencing Units Can Rectify, Rehabilitate, and Restore
A concerted effort to review, resentence, and release is the right thing to do for those who have been unjustly sentenced. It is also the right thing to do for our community.
As a country, we have used our criminal legal system to inflict a tremendous amount of harm on our communities. It is why the nation has seen a wave of “progressive prosecutors” like us elected to office after running on platforms that promise to correct course. It is why state legislatures are decriminalizing marijuana and abolishing the death penalty. And it is why we are taking the first step toward mitigating the ongoing harm of yesterday’s grossly excessive, tough-on-crime sentencing practices by establishing resentencing units within our offices.
Although prosecutors do not sentence defendants, we play a significant role in the sentences they get. A prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation carries weight in a courtroom, both after trials and in plea bargaining. And prosecutorial objections to post-sentencing relief—like commutations, clemency, and parole—have an outsize effect on whether the request is granted. In sum, we have a lot to do with how long people are locked up.
So, as prosecutors seeking to right the wrongs of our predecessors and the system we operate within, we must take action. We must take concrete steps toward addressing the disproportionate and inhumanely long sentences so many people are serving. We must do so while being mindful that these extreme sentences have disproportionately harmed people of color.
We’ll do this by establishing resentencing units within our offices. These units examine sentences that have already been imposed and determine whether they should be reduced because of age, medical condition, rehabilitation, or disproportionality. In practice, this means that a person who commits a crime at 16 years old will not spend the rest of their life in prison. It means we can fix a grossly disproportionate sentence, like the life prison term given to Calvin McNeill in Baltimore for a horrible mistake he made in 1980 when he was a kid. And it means that we can begin to return to our community the many individuals who are serving excessive sentences because of draconian sentencing laws, coercive plea bargaining, and mandatory sentencing enhancements.
A concerted effort to review, resentence, and release is the right thing to do for those who have been unjustly sentenced. It is also the right thing to do for our community. Two-thirds of voters support both legislation that allows for re-examining old sentences as well as the prosecutors who promise to do just that. Decreasing our prison population also improves public health by reducing the spread of COVID-19 through our prisons and the surrounding communities. And perhaps most important, repairing the harm caused by unjust sentencing practices assures our communities that we are working toward a vision of justice that is worthy of the great responsibility with which they have entrusted us.
The United States spends millions of dollars to incarcerate elderly people who no longer present a public safety threat. Criminologists have long stated that people “age out” of crime, and as they enter their later years, they are far less likely to commit crime. FBI Crime Statistics bear that out, showing that people over 60 comprise 3 percent of violent crime arrests.
A number of offices throughout the country have already established sentencing review units that are doing or intend to do similar work such as: State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy’s office in Prince George’s County, Maryland; Dan Satterberg’s office in Seattle; Larry Krasner’s office in Philadelphia; Chesa Boudin’s office in San Francisco; Eric Gonzalez’s office in Brooklyn; and now our offices in Baltimore and Los Angeles.
In Baltimore and Los Angeles, our resentencing units will prioritize people who have a medical condition that places them at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. We have known from the beginning of this pandemic that those who are incarcerated would be some of the most vulnerable. And that is exactly what has happened. People who are incarcerated are fives times more likely to get the disease and three times more likely to die once infected.
Our offices will also prioritize the cases of people serving life sentences, including elderly individuals, people with long, demonstrable records of rehabilitation, and people sentenced for crimes committed as minors. There are over 2,300 prisoners serving life sentences in Maryland, and approximately 78 percent of them are Black. In California, there are over 30,000 people serving life, life without parole, and third-strike sentences. To put that number in perspective, in 1980, there were only 23,000 total people in prison in California. The state’s three-strikes laws and unwillingness to treat kids like kids, among other cruel sentencing practices, has resulted in thousands of individuals serving these unnecessarily long sentences. Yet, according to prison evaluations, the vast majority of individuals who have served 20 years are deemed low-risk. Many of these people should be at home, not locked away in prison.
We recognize that reaching into the past will affect those whose lives were altered by the crimes for which we will be seeking resentencing. We fully intend to work with victims and families to ensure the process is sensitive to their concerns and that they are cared for during the process.
Both of us were moved by a national survey that revealed that crime survivors, by a 2-to-1 margin, say they want less investment in punishment and more investment in rehabilitation. That’s why, in Baltimore, we are creating restorative justice processes that will work in tandem with our sentencing review to accomplish these goals. In Los Angeles, our process includes input from victims, victim advocates, community and social justice organizations, and re-entry services. Moreover, to ensure the success of people who are brought home, the Amity Foundation, in partnership with the Returning Home Well initiative, has pledged assistance to everyone resentenced in Los Angeles.
People grow and change, and a just society must provide incarcerated individuals with an opportunity for redemption. And, just as people grow and change, so does our nation. Laws that seemed wise decades ago are revealed as costly, cruel, and counterproductive mistakes. Our nation’s addiction to extreme sentencing—devoid of justification in public safety, mercy, or humanity—led to an explosion in the number of people behind bars. And yet, too often, once we gain this new wisdom, the people sentenced based on these collective mistakes are denied an opportunity to go home.
No more. We’ve built our resentencing units to embody the commitment of our offices to stopping yesterday’s mistakes from perpetuating tomorrow’s injustice. We are eager to be leaders in helping our communities rethink what it means to repair harm and seek justice—and in changing the way we approach both of those goals.
George Gascón is the district attorney of Los Angeles County. Marilyn Mosby is the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, Maryland.