(photo via the Governor's Office)
Regardless what one thinks of presidential pardons, we should reflect upon a simple truth – convictions and sentences meted out at one point might not be appropriate decades later. That is especially true for many people currently serving life or massive prison sentences.
Many have argued for sentence commutations for specific classifications of people. In recent years, the Supreme Court has recognized that judges sentencing young people, even for violent crimes, must consider lack of maturity, impulsivity, and the inherent potential for change, and so reformers are asking courts to resentence those serving long prison terms for crimes committed when they were young. Many people advocate for medical parole or compassionate release for the elderly and infirm. Others focus on people deemed to be low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
At the heart of the problem, however, are all the people serving draconian sentences for crimes committed when they were adults and who are not, at least not yet, suffering from any debilitating illness or in any other “special” category. In fact, it is the “normalcy” of so many cases that highlights the issue we must confront.
Consider Jawad Musa. He is 53. He has been incarcerated for 27 years. A confidential informant and an undercover orchestrated what is known as a reverse sting. Mr. Musa and several others received a phone call saying there was heroin for sale if they could muster $20,000. They cobbled together the money, drove to New York, met the undercover, showed the cash, and were arrested – no drugs were ever exchanged.
Mr. Musa was convicted at trial. The judge who sentenced him expressed frustration with the mandatory sentence he had to impose and wrote that “the length of [Mr. Musa’s] sentence and time served thereon makes him an appropriate applicant for executive clemency.” The trial prosecutor who went on to serve in high level positions in the Justice Department, as well as being named Assistant Attorney General for National Security, wrote that “justice has been done for Mr. Musa’s drug crime in 1991” and “mercy and fairness now dictate that he be given the opportunity to rejoin society and enjoy the balance of his life as a free man.” The Captain at his federal penitentiary wrote that Musa is a “positive force, mentoring younger prisoners” and “I am confident that if granted clemency Jawad would quickly become a productive member of society. He has served a sufficiently long sentence and deserves the chance to re-unite with his family.”
And yet Jawad Musa remains in prison – for life.
Consider Roy Bolus. He is 48. He has been incarcerated 30 years. Unlike Musa, Roy participated in a violent and horrific crime. But unlike Jawad, Roy was only a teenager – he was 18 years old and had never been convicted of any crime. Roy and five other men, including two other teenagers, went to Albany, New York to steal a safe from a rival drug dealer. Once they got inside, one of Roy’s co-defendants shot and killed two people. Roy was in another room at the time of the shooting, did not have a weapon, never fired any shots, but was convicted of felony murder.
Roy’s extraordinary achievements while incarcerated for the past three decades are matched only by the outpouring of support he has garnered for clemency. He has attained Associates, Bachelors, and Masters Degrees and is pursuing a Doctorate. He has taught more than 5,000 hours of classes on HIV prevention, self-improvement, and a variety of academic subjects. He has been the Chair or President of several organizations and helped build an educational program inside the prison. He has numerous letters from family and friends who offer housing, employment, love, and support. Several men write compellingly of the impact Roy had on their determination to persevere while in prison and to thrive if they ever made it to the outside.
And yet it really doesn’t matter. Roy was sentenced to 80 years to life in prison. He is scheduled to see the Parole Board in 2067. He would be 98 years old.
There are countless other similar stories that are part and parcel of the epidemic of mass incarceration – people who have committed crimes, including brutally serious ones, but after decades in prison have grown into remarkably different people.
Last year, the venerable American Law Institute, a non-governmental organization of judges, lawyers and academics, approved the first-ever revisions to the historic Model Penal Code. The MPC, taught in virtually every law school, was developed in 1962 to introduce uniformity and coherence to the myriad criminal codes in the 50 states, and serves as a model across the country. The update to the Code took more than 15 years to complete and yielded a comprehensive 700-page report.
The ALI focused specifically on sentencing in order to address the decades of punitiveness that led to the current state of mass incarceration, made all the more shameful by the significant racial disparities in American jails and prisons.
One recommendation in particular addresses the epidemic of 2.2 million people behind bars. The Code now calls for state legislatures to enact a “second look” provision; to create a mechanism to reexamine a person’s sentence after 15 years no matter the crime of conviction or how long the original sentence. If the original sentence remains unchanged, it would be revisited every ten years thereafter.
While many will sound the alarm for “truth-in-sentencing” or the need for finality, the second-look provision asks a very basic question -- are the purposes of sentencing better served by a sentence modification or by adhering to the original sentence imposed many years earlier?
The commentary to the Code cites a host of utilitarian reasons why long sentences should not be frozen in time, suggesting that “governments should be especially cautious” and act with “a profound sense of humility” when depriving people of their freedom for most of their adult lives.
The commentary notes further that new developments might show that old sentences are no longer empirically valid, as current risk assessment methods claim to be better at predicting risk of recidivism than those previously used. Similarly, new rehabilitative approaches might be discovered for people who at the time of their sentencing were thought resistant to change.
The second-look provision is bold and unprecedented – to actually redress the past 50 years of mass incarceration requires nothing less, as most proposed criminal justice solutions and reforms are prospective and have no impact on those people currently in prison. Further, executive clemency in the form of sentence commutation has also proven to be of limited utility as Presidents and Governors are loath to exercise this power to any serious and meaningful degree.
Second-look allows for mid-course correction if warranted by some measure of changed circumstances -- major changes in the offender, his family situation, the crime victim, or the community -- that merit a different sentence. It is consistent with the growth of restorative justice that seeks to move away from the punishment paradigm of the last several decades. Second-look also allows the sentencing determination to be made in a calmer atmosphere than existed at the time of the original sentencing, so that any notoriety, outside pressure, or inflamed passions may have abated.
Bills have been introduced in the New York State Legislature regarding parole eligibility for people who are least 55 years old and have served at least 15 years of their sentence, and while the devil may be in the details, they are not insurmountable. There will be costs associated with establishing second-look processes but money will ultimately be saved as more people are sent home. Releasing people from prison is often controversial and even one crime committed by a releasee can threaten to shut down any second-look process, so there must be carefully constructed guidelines, created by myriad stakeholders, to ensure the independence of the decision-makers, and that all decisions are consistent, defensible, and transparent.
Mass incarceration is not just about unnecessarily incarcerating masses of people. It is about unnecessarily keeping masses of people in prison for decades. A sentence once imposed is not thereby automatically rendered, just, fair and appropriate in perpetuity. Ultimately, second-look mechanisms are meant to recognize and value the possibility of change and transformation, and to intervene when drastically long sentences are indefensible.
Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. He is on Twitter @SteveZeidman. (For related bills in the New York State Legislature see S.8581/A.6354A; S.8346/A.7546.)