The First Beneficiary of a Sentence Review Unit Walks Free
Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
Last week, San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan reported that a 57-year-old man has become the first person freed under a new law that lets prosecutors review and revise old sentences. In 2003, Kent Joy Williams was sentenced to die in prison. He hadn’t hurt anybody: He was convicted of breaking into two houses and stealing a car. But he had prior convictions, and under California’s now-revised “three strikes” law, Williams was sentenced to 50 years to life. According to Stephan, that sentence wouldn’t apply to cases like his under the law today, given that his charges were property crimes driven by drug dependence. And after 16 years in prison, Williams walked out. “The Lord heard my cry,” Williams said. “You’re talking to a grateful man today. I’m just so grateful for another chance.” Since his release on June 4, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Williams has started rebuilding his life, reuniting with his children, meeting three of his grandchildren for the first time, finding a job, and registering for college.
Under the new law, prosecutors are given the power to review old cases and recommend less time if they believe the original sentence was unduly harsh. A judge must ultimately approve the revised sentence before a person can be freed. The law was the brainchild of Hillary Blout, a former San Francisco prosecutor who now runs the Sentence Review Project, a nonprofit group. Blout says the idea grew directly from her experience as a prosecutor. “I felt like we were a very progressive office,” she told The Daily Appeal. “We had all kinds of alternatives to incarceration and I thought we were doing good work, but I didn’t ever really consider what happens to people after they were sentenced.”
After she left the DA’s office to work in criminal justice policy, she began visiting prisons and hearing people’s stories. “When I began understanding the barriers they faced and the larger impact of the decisions I made, I started to feel like, how would I have done things differently if I had known it wasn’t just the person I was prosecuting, it was their family, their community etcetera.” Even though she tried to do a good job and be sensitive as a prosecutor, “I wasn’t really considering what would happen to them and how long they’d be away, I thought that was more the defense attorney’s job.” She added, “I felt guilty.” She believes that if more prosecutors heard these stories “or could see these people on their better days … they would believe that people can transform their lives and be different.” She pushed to get the law passed in order to give prosecutors the chance to rectify those mistakes.
Sentence review should appeal to all prosecutors, not only those who ran on progressive platforms, according to Blout. She points out that the law passed with no opposition from any prosecutors, even those who would never call themselves progressive.
Sentence review is not too progressive for even the most conservative California prosecutors, but it is a step too far for the Washington Post editorial board, apparently, which last week criticized the only other sentence review legislation, in D.C. Two years ago, D.C. enacted a measure allowing people serving lengthy prison terms for crimes committed when they were 16 or 17 to apply for sentence reductions after serving at least 20 years.
The editorial, which cites absolutely no evidence and instead relies on fearmongering and misrepresentations, warns that “the council is putting the public at increased risk, unnecessarily.” It complains that judges are no longer required to consider the original crime in resentencing (though it is hard to imagine a judge ever ignoring the original crime), and that the legislation allows for applications after 15 years, not 20. The board seems most concerned about pending legislation that would extend that measure to those who committed crimes up to age 25. It misleads readers by listing in sensational detail gruesome crimes and saying that their perpetrators would be among the measure’s “beneficiaries,” even though the measure would only allow them the chance to apply for a shortened sentence, and would in no way guarantee release. The editorial warns that the City Council “assured that proceedings will tilt in favor of convicts.”
What the editorial board either did not understand, or perhaps chose to ignore, was the amount of discretion involved in these reviews. Sentence review laws impose no obligations on prosecutors or judges. Last week, when law professor James Forman and I published an op-ed about sentence review in the New York Times, the only critiques I received were about that discretion. One professor asked me if I really believed that prosecutors would ever voluntarily “be forces for good.”
As if to prove those critics right, Stephan, the San Diego DA who was proud to have petitioned for the first sentence review release, is now using her discretion to require some defendants who plead guilty to sign a waiver, giving up any rights they might have in the future to seek a lower sentence. Their sentence, in other words, would be locked in, regardless of changes in public opinion about what an appropriate, cost-effective, and proportionate sentence is. Her office says that it is only requiring these waivers in what it considers to be “serious” cases, but those assurances are not meaningful to many. Relying on prosecutors’ sense of appropriate sentences, after all, is what got the U.S. into this mess in the first place.