Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who’s running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, wants federal prisoners who have spent over a decade behind bars to get a shot at having their sentences reduced or being released.
Booker announced on Monday that he will be introducing the Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act in the Senate later this week, while Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) will do the same in the House. The legislation would give federal prisoners who have served more than 10 years of their sentence the opportunity to petition a judge to determine whether they’re eligible for a reduced sentence or release.
For prisoners who are over age 50, it would include a “rebuttable presumption of release,” meaning it would be on the government to make the case as to why the petitioner should stay locked up.
Judges would take into consideration whether the prisoner demonstrated they were ready to reenter society and not be a danger to the safety of the community, per a news release from Booker’s team.
“Our bill targets a harsh reality: there are hundreds of thousands of people behind bars ― most of them people of color ― who were sentenced under draconian laws during the height of the War on Drugs that we have since recognized were unfair,” Booker said in the release, noting that many changes in laws and sentencing in recent years have not been “retroactive” so as to apply to people sentenced in previous years or decades.
There were about 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails in 2017, per the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 180,000 people were in federal prison this year, about half of whom had sentences of 10 years or more.
There are significant racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, including in sentencing. While black people make up only about 13% of the total population, about 38% of federal prisoners are black. And a 2017 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission ― an independent agency of the U.S. judicial branch ― found that over the previous five years, black male offenders received sentences on average 19% longer than those of “similarly situated” white male offenders.
Another 2017 study from the commission found that older federal prisoners were “substantially less likely” than younger ones to recidivate ― or commit another criminal offense ― after release.
“We should not be caging people who have more than served their debt to society and pose no threat to anyone else,” Booker said on a press call last week.
John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham law school and expert in incarceration and sentencing for over 20 years, called the bill “positive” and an “important step” toward addressing mass incarceration.
“The idea of allowing us to reconsider sentences that have been imposed is very helpful,” Pfaff told HuffPost. “Too often we call people violent offenders, which is problematic, like this is who this person is. People age out of violence.”
“They’re not the same person they were when we locked them up and we should reevaluate that,” he added, noting the federal system currently has no parole process and people generally have to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they can be considered for release.
The new legislation builds on Booker’s previous efforts toward criminal justice reform, including authoring the First Step Act that passed last year and aims to cut the federal prison population by allowing prisoners a chance to earn more days off each year for good behavior.
The new bill is in part named after William Underwood, a man in his 60s who is currently serving a sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime he committed in the 1980s, per Booker’s team. Imprisoned since 1988, he is in federal prison in Booker’s home state of New Jersey and is considered a “model prisoner,” mentoring younger inmates, Booker said, and is “exactly the type of person who would be able to get a review of his case for release under this bill.”
Booker hopes the federal legislation will serve as a model for states to follow suit. There were about 1.3 million people in state prison in 2017, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Last year, HuffPost visited Earlonne Woods, a now-former inmate of California’s San Quentin State Prison, who co-created the hit podcast ”Ear Hustle.” Woods was released on parole in late 2018, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence after he had served 21 years of a sentence of 31 years to life. Brown said in his letter announcing the commutation that Woods “has clearly shown that he is no longer the man he was when he committed this crime.”
“Once you commit your crime, people think that’s what it is, but individuals change,” Woods told HuffPost while he was still behind bars. “They don’t stay the same people that they were when they committed their crime. They grow up ― literally.”