First-of-its-kind criminal justice reform polling shows that American voters on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly support allowing people serving excessive prison terms to seek release and return to their communities, according to a new report from Data for Progress, The Justice Collaborative, and Fair and Just Prosecution.
The number of people serving multi-decade and life-long sentences in the United States is unprecedented, a major reason why the country remains a world leader in incarceration.
“Recent efforts at bipartisan criminal justice reform haven’t addressed the hundreds of thousands of people serving lengthy sentences who no longer pose a serious risk to public safety,” explained The Justice Collaborative Senior Legal Counsel and report lead author Kyle Barry. “Many completing prison terms grossly out of step with current practices have changed dramatically and would be valuable members of their communities. Standing by these sentences is both unjust and inefficient.”
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The report documents public sentiment on two “sentence review” policy proposals that are gaining increased attention: “second-look” legislation that allows incarcerated people to petition courts for early release, and the creation of sentence review units within prosecutors’ offices to re-examine cases in which sentences may have been overly punitive. Full models of each policy are included as appendices.
Among the key findings:
- Overall, 69% of voters support “second look” legislation that allows for “the re-examination of old sentences to provide a second chance for people who have been in prison for more than ten years and who can be safely returned to the community” — including 63% of “very conservative” voters and 82% of “very liberal” voters.
- Similarly, two-thirds (67%) of voters support “elected prosecutors reexamining past sentences to provide a second chance to people who have been in prison for ten years or longer and who can be safely returned to the community.”
Voters’ support for these policies is animated by a wide variety of factors, including bringing U.S. sentencing more in line with international standards, addressing racial disparities, reducing costs, correcting past sentencing practices, and ensuring that people who pose little risk of committing crimes are not growing old behind bars, separated from their families and communities. At least 70% of voters found each of these factors to be “extremely,” “very,” or “moderately” important.
These policies are gaining momentum. In July 2019, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) introduced the Second Look Act, which would provide anyone who has served at least ten years in federal prison the opportunity to petition a judge for resentencing. It would also create a presumption in favor of release for anyone 50 years or older.
One month later, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that his office will review excessive sentences just as it reviews wrongful convictions. In December, New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie introduced a bill that would allow prosecutors to petition a judge to set aside a sentence, in most cases, after a person has served 15 years.
This latest collaboration by Data for Progress, The Justice Collaborative, and the Fair and Just Prosecution provides legislators and district attorneys with new evidence of broad public support for specific criminal justice reform initiatives.
The Justice Collaborative Institute is a coalition of justice reform scholars from across the nation focused on providing an academic perspective to conversations and work surrounding mass incarceration and related issues.