November 14, 2019, 1:42 pm
Last year nearly 5,000 federal prisoners were released early under the First Step Act, a sentencing reform bill that reduced penalties for some drug convictions and other non-violent crimes. The First Step Act intended to remedy inequitable sentences that disproportionately affected minorities, as well as incorporate new evidence that harsh sentences do not lead to greater community safety. This sentencing reform bill was a great step in the right direction to reduce over-incarceration.
Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with good prison and sentence reforms, the First Step Act released a prisoner who was re-arrested this week for murder. This tragedy has opponents of prison reform smugly crying, “See, I told you so!” Nevertheless, as tragic as this murder is, we have to ask if we should halt prison and sentencing reforms simply because someone who benefits from the reforms abuses his blessing. I argue we should not.
If someone is ticketed for speeding, fails to learn his or her lesson, and drives recklessly again, killing someone in an accident, should we react by taking away the licenses of everyone caught speeding? No, of course not, but that is the reactionary response to so-called “failures” from prison reform. As is the case with most crime, these failures are sensationalized in the news, and politicians and the public react to the exception rather than the rule.
I’m sure others of the 5,000 released prisoners have committed other crimes and returned to prison. The national recidivism rate is high enough to guess that. But many others, too, have gone on to lead productive, reformed lives. Should we deny these prisoners the benefits of reform simply because of the small number who waste their freedom?
We cannot anticipate what people will do with a second (or third, or fourth) chance at freedom. Some will do well, and some will not. That does not mean that we should stop reforming inequitable sentences or incorporating new evidence showing that long sentences do not lead to safer communities. We’ve been on the right track in changing laws to recognize the injustice of mass incarceration. Let’s not derail the progress of justice simply to prevent what *might* happen.
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