State organizers and advocates are challenging mass incarceration through reforms to recalibrate life and long prison terms. These efforts require legal reforms to correct the nation’s sentencing systems. In the near term, state advocates have surfaced strategies and organizing efforts focused on encouraging local practitioners to seek mid-course sentencing adjustments or “second look” reviews.
State law allows prison sentences to be recalled. This authority is available to various practitioners including the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or the Board of Parole Hearings in the case of persons in prison, or the county correctional administrator in the case of persons in county jails. Legislation in 2018 – Assembly Bill 2942 – extended this authority to district attorneys in the county where a person was sentenced. An analysis by the San Quentin Times finds that many incarcerated persons qualify for a sentence recall if they demonstrate exceptional conduct, experienced a sentencing discrepancy, or would benefit from a retroactive change in law.
Other states allow post-sentence modifications too. Last year, Baron Walker received a sentence modification after serving more than 20 years in prison on an indeterminate prison term. The underlying reasons for sentence modification vary by case but sometimes include the excessiveness of the prison term. Sentence modifications may be a strategy to address unfair sentences in some states. Earlier this year, Geneva Cooley received a sentence modification in Alabama after serving more than 17 years on a mandatory life without parolesentence for drug trafficking. Ms. Cooley was resentenced to a parole eligible term and is scheduled for a parole review later this year.
The collective actions of organizers and advocates to address individual circumstances hopefully result in structurally changing sentencing practices. Legal services organizations like the Ohio Justice & Policy Center are aligning legal representation with policy reform. OJPC’s recently launched Beyond Guilt initiative will address unjust lengthy prison terms for persons convicted of serious violent offenses through client-centered and legislative advocacy.
- Arizona: Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation scaling back the state’s truth-in-sentencing requirement from 85-percent time served to 70-percent time served for felony drug possession offenses
- Illinois: Plan to legalize recreational marijuana includes a two-tiered expungement process for residents with prior marijuana convictions that could impact 770,000 records.
- Ohio: Lawmakers are considering legislation to reclassify certain felonies to misdemeanors.
- Nevada: Attorney General Aaron Ford is launching a public awareness campaign to inform an estimated 77,000 formerly incarcerated Nevadans that they will have their right to vote automatically restored under a bill passed by the 2019 Legislature.
- District of Columbia: Legislation was introduced to expand voting rights to incarcerated residents sentenced to a felony conviction.