An Uncertain Future for U.S. Prison Sentencing Reform

Social justice advocates made headway, but setbacks to sound prison policy still offset advances in sentencing reform.

sentencing reform

State by state, major prison sentencing reforms were made in 2012, but the United States still leads the world in per capita incarceration. (Photo: Jason Redmond/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

When it comes to handing out prison sentences, America isn’t known for leniency. No country fetishizes being “tough on crime” more than the United States, except perhaps China.

For the first time in many years, however, “throw away the key” attitudes and policies began to change across the country: 2012 saw major sentencing reforms in a number of states—including what could arguably be the biggest reform in years, with the passage of Proposition 36 in California.

A “Three Strikes” reform bill, Prop. 36 eliminates the possibility of criminals being handed life sentences for non-violent crimes. California’s Three Strikes law was previously among the toughest in the nation, and had put people away for life for crimes as petty as stealing a pizza. The bill’s passage will hopefully presage a review of Three Strikes laws across the country, in places where inmates currently can be sentenced to rot in prison for life for similarly petty offenses.

MORE: The Death Penalty Is in the Sights of One Innocent Man

Prop. 36 wasn’t the only good news for sentencing reform in California—2012 also saw the passage of SB 9 in the state legislature, which gives adults who were sentenced to life in prison without parole as juveniles a chance to earn their freedom.

“This society should be known as one that cares about its kids,” California state senator and SB 9 sponsor Leland Yee told TakePart. “When you have youngsters who have made a mistake, and there are indications they are trying to turn their lives around, we should look at these kids once again and ask ourselves—can they contribute to our society?”

Not all state officials share Leland Yee’s perspective. In Pennsylvania, juvenile justice advocates were dismayed that efforts to impose a similar effort as California’s SB 9 were ignored in favor of a far more regressive bill—SB 850, which, though it relaxes automatic LWOP sentence for juveniles somewhat, is still so extreme as to be a virtual guarantee of life sentences for youth offenders.

“I often hear people erroneously talk about how they oppose the death penalty in principle, but they don’t want to pay to keep murderers in prison for the rest of their lives. They don’t understand that it costs far more to execute them.”

The new Pennsylvania bill stipulates that instead of automatic LWOP sentences, youth over 15 can be sentenced to 35-to-life, while youth under 15 can serve 25-to-life. The law does not remove LWOP sentences, it simply gives judges the discretion to enforce an alternative sentence.

“These kids will be 55 to 56 before they have any real chance of getting out on parole,” Anita Colon, whose brother is serving an LWOP sentence told TakePart. “How likely are they to find jobs? What type of family support will they have? Their parents will likely be gone. They may or may not have siblings.”

Despite those obvious concerns, Governor Tom Corbett took less than a week to sign SB 850 into law on Oct. 25, 2012.

There were more sentencing reform setbacks this year. In California, an effort to end the death penalty was shut down when voters failed to pass Proposition 34—which would have repealed capital punishment and replaced it with a maximum sentence of life without parole. Supporters of the bill included former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford, who put four inmates to death during her tenure in charge of the prison.

“I often hear people erroneously talk about how they oppose the death penalty in principle, but they don’t want to pay to keep murderers in prison for the rest of their lives,” she told TakePart. “They don’t understand that it costs far more to execute them.”

In a year that saw Texas execute a mentally retarded man, and Louisiana exonerate a death row inmate who had been bullied into giving a false confession, Prop. 36’s failure could be seen as a major defeat. California anti-death penalty advocates were not too distraught at the outcome, however, because the final voting numbers of the bill were far closer than previous attempts to eliminate capital punishment had ever been.

“With any great social-justice issue, there is an inevitability to the movement,” Prop. 34 organizer Daniel Tamm told TakePart on election night. “As Shakespeare wrote, ‘it will come—the readiness is all.’ ”

Hopefully, sentencing reform comes before anyone else is executed.

Do you favor prison sentencing reform, or do you feel tougher is better? Talk it through in COMMENTS.

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