Elected prosecutors from across the country came together at Yale University in New Haven, CT this October to discuss the importance of revisiting lengthy sentences and the role of DAs in promoting reform and ensuring individuals who need not be in custody have the chance for a successful pathway forward.
The discussion underscored the growing national conversation around a prosecutor’s obligation to pursue justice at all times — including in looking back and remedying past unjust convictions or excessive sentences. For a growing number of elected prosecutors, that means revisiting decades-long sentences doled out during the “tough on crime” era and asking critical questions: Is this equitable and fair? Is this really justice? Does this improve safety? Would we impose these lengthy sentences today? Many DAs are concluding that the answer to these inquiries is a resounding “no.”
“Public safety does not require us to adhere to an outdated and ineffective tough on crime approach. Instead we need to be smart on crime.”
-Eric Gonzalez, Kings County, NY District Attorney
Over the course of the convening, participants heard from:
- Individuals who have been incarcerated, who shared how second chances have allowed them to rebuild their lives and forge positive pathways as they returned to their loved ones and community;
- Children of parents who have been incarcerated, who discussed the effect of incarceration on families and what reforms are needed to minimize trauma and harm;
- Experts who provided insights on why revisiting past sentences makes sense from the standpoint of public safety, fiscal responsibility and justice; and
- Elected prosecutors who have created mechanisms within their offices for sentencing review.
The conversation put a spotlight on the collateral consequences of incarceration, the resources that people need to rebuild their lives after their release, and the role that DAs can play in ensuring those resources are available and accessible.
“Public safety doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when we are intentional about providing people with the resources and opportunities they need to live and thrive, especially those returning to our communities after release from custody.”
- Andrea Harrington, Berkshire County, MA District Attorney
Key takeaways from the convening included:
- Evidence and data at both the state and federal level demonstrate that people age out of crime and it is possible to release a significant number of incarcerated people, sentenced to decades-long terms of imprisonment, without negatively affecting public safety.
- As one of the most influential actors in the justice system, prosecutors have historically opposed second chance efforts and sentencing reform. As we move away from an era of “tough on crime” policies, prosecutors should use their power to proactively support sentencing relief in individual cases and to advocate for expanding vehicles for early release and sentence reductions in their jurisdictions.
- When reviewing cases for sentencing relief, prosecutors should focus on who the person is today and their ability to safely return to the community, rather than focusing solely on their past conduct.
- The prosecutor’s role is to promote justice for the entire community. While survivors of crime should be respected and supported, they should not have veto power over who receives second chances.
- Racial disparities in sentencing cannot be ignored and reducing those disparities should be a central aim of sentencing reform efforts in any jurisdiction.
- A sentencing review process or dedicated unit is critical to proactively and systematically supporting sensible and just sentence reductions and is a best practice for 21st Century Prosecutors.
To learn more about models of innovation for sentencing reform and second chances, check out this op-ed authored by elected prosecutors Eric Gonzalez (Kings County, NY) and Dan Satterberg (King County, WA) and FJP Executive Director Miriam Krinsky, as well as FJP’s 21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor. And for more on the impact of incarceration on children and families, see this new op-ed in The Appeal from We Got Us Now Founder and CEO Ebony Underwood and FJP’s Krinsky.