Prosecutors Need to Take Another Look at Excessive Prison Sentences

by | Nov 19, 2021 | President Message, Advocacy, Race

California houses the second largest prison population in the United States behind Texas and the largest population of people serving long-term sentences. Due to decades of tough-on-crime policies from over-zealous politicians, some of these long-term sentences are excessive or overly punitive. These sentences are not and never were in the genuine interest of justice. 

In 2019, under the leadership of California Assemblymember Phil Ting, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 2942. The Bill was drafted by “For The People,” an organization that promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by enabling racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice. Since its passage, the Bill has activated the power of prosecutors to remedy unjust sentences by giving District Attorneys the authority to reevaluate existing sentences and determine whether the ruling is (or ever was) in the interest of justice. The prosecuting agency can then recommend a sentence reduction or release to the Court. 

Since 2019, legislators in 25 states, including Minnesota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Florida, have introduced “second look” bills. A federal bill allowing resentencing youth crimes has bipartisan support. Over 60 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders have called for second look legislation, with several prosecutors’ offices having launched sentence review units. 

At present, however, African Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. In Los Angeles County, African Americans are 8% of the population but represent 30% of the county jail population. The rate of incarceration of African Americans in state prisons is nearly five times the rate of white Americans according to a recent report by The Sentencing Project, an organization that promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults. Nationally, one in 81 African American adults in the U.S. is serving time in state prison. Seven states, including California, maintain a Black/white disparity higher than 9 to 1. The incarceration rate for Latinx individuals in state prisons at 1.3 times the incarceration rate of whites. 

Not only are African Americans more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences.

These unfortunate circumstances can have devastating effects on Black youth where one day, one minute, one poor adolescent choice can have lifelong consequences offering little to no chance of redemption throughout their lifetime. 

Ending mass incarceration and tackling its racial disparities requires taking a second look at excessive sentences. This year’s state budget includes $18 million for a pilot project to support prosecutors who seek out cases that warrant another look in 9 counties: Yolo, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Riverside, Contra Costa, Merced, and Humboldt. 

L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón has created a resentencing unit that reviewed an estimated 20,000 cases earlier this year. Gascón commented that scaling back long prison terms for rehabilitated inmates can help free up resources to tackle homelessness, improve access to higher education, and make infrastructure repairs. The Los Angeles Urban League applauds these actions and urges all of California’s 58 county district attorneys to do the same.  

People can change, and we must provide pathways for that change to occur whether through reentry or resentencing. The Los Angeles Urban League will continue to fight for those looking for ways to change their lives and advocate for justice reforms that eliminate the unjust disparity of outcomes, which negatively impact our families and communities. We hope prosecutors throughout California can take a second look at excessive sentences and use their resources to ensure that true justice is served.  

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