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Criminal law reformers: resentencing focus is now timely, urgent

| Dec 18, 2020 | Criminal Defense

Lock them up and throw away the key.

Readers of criminal law blogs and other justice-themed articles and reports have heard that refrain before.

In fact, they’ve been hearing it or other similarly conveyed utterances for decades. A tough-on-crime approach has been the central mantra for the country’s well-entrenched War on Crime for generations.

A sizable majority of the American public has long embraced a punishment-first criminal justice model. That template has emphasized things like lengthy prison terms, mandatory minimum sentencing dictates, three-strikes policies and reduced judicial discretion concerning case outcomes.

Has it worked?

The pros and cons of the U.S. criminal justice system have been long debated, and with increased vigor in recent years. Advocates argue that a punitive and largely unforgiving scheme unquestionably yields salutary outcomes. They point to dangerous criminals being safely locked away, deterrence concerning future outcomes, justifiable public retribution and more.

Critics – who comprise a broad-based and exponentially growing number of naysayers – underscore numerous concerns that they argue have collectively weakened American justice and rendered it more inequitable than fair.

Does a long-tenured justice model need to be reexamined?

A recent in-depth opinion piece authored by prosecutors George Gascon and Marilyn Mosby (the district attorney for Los Angeles County and state’s attorney for Baltimore, respectively) strongly argues that criminal sentencing relief is long overdue and urgently needed. Their shared commentary stresses an imperative for communities spanning the country to “rethink what it means to repair harm and seek justice.”

The authors candidly criticize the present legal system, noting that it is used “to inflict a tremendous amount of harm on [American] communities.” Here are some reasons why that is reportedly true, especially where incarceration is involved:

  • Routinely harsh sentencing outcomes increase the troubling reality of wrongful convictions
  • Clogged state and federal prisons cost the public a staggering amount of money
  • Lengthy and commonly imposed prison sentences materially drive up recidivism (return-to-prison) rates
  • Harm disproportionately visited on people of color
  • Punishment emphasis reduces opportunity to rehabilitate young offenders

Rationale behind reform and so-called “resentencing units”

Review, resentence and release.

Those are the core principles in what Gascon and Mosby favor pursuant to resentencing units they plan to establish in their offices. The key thrust for attorneys in those departments (and for other similarly minded units across the country) will be to examine existing sentences and rationally determine those that might be readjusted “because of age, medical condition, rehabilitation or disproportionality.”

Society favors this, say the DAs. Fairer outcomes will ensue, and intense cost and facility pressures will be reduced. Selective adjustment where it makes sense promotes true justice and minimizes purely punitive outcomes.

And it is empirically supported. A national survey stresses that even victims/survivors of crime support – by about a 2-to-1 ratio – criminal law policies that focus more on rehabilitation than on punishment.

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