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By: Stacy M. Brown, NNPA

A comprehensive analysis by The Sentencing Project has demonstrated noteworthy progress in the “Second Look Movement” nationwide, with an increase in judicial and legislative actions targeted at reassessing long sentences.

Titled “The Second Look Movement: A Review of the Nation’s Sentence Review Laws,” the report provides a detailed analysis of second look legislation and court decisions in 12 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government. It also delves into the implications of such laws on youth offenders and emerging adults, along with recommendations for enhancing their application.

According to the report, legislatures in 12 states, the District of Columbia, and at the federal level have implemented policies enabling “second look” judicial reviews. Additionally, courts in at least 15 states have declared lengthy sentences, beyond life without parole, as unconstitutional for youth, while three states have restricted life-without-parole sentences for emerging adults.

Key findings from the report highlight the provisions and recommendations necessary to ensure the effectiveness and fairness of second-look legislation. These include expanding eligibility criteria, implementing fully retroactive provisions, granting judicial discretion in sentence reduction, and providing timely and accessible review processes.

Among the states examined, six—Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Oregon, Florida, and North Dakota—and the District of Columbia allow courts to reconsider sentences under specified conditions, such as age at the time of the offense and duration of incarceration. Meanwhile, California, Colorado, and New York focus their reviews on specific populations, such as military veterans, habitual offenders, and domestic violence survivors, respectively.

Moreover, the report underscores provisions allowing for compassionate release for federal inmates based on extraordinary and compelling reasons, as well as for the elderly age alone for those incarcerated in the District of Columbia.

Becky Feldman, Second Look Network Director at The Sentencing Project, and author of the report, emphasized the critical role of Second Look legislation in addressing systemic issues within the criminal justice system. Feldman stressed the importance of these laws in combating mass incarceration, advancing racial justice, and promoting public safety.  “Second look legislation is imperative to end mass incarceration, accelerate racial justice, and better invest in public safety,” Feldman declared.

In response to the growing momentum of the Second Look Movement, The Sentencing Project launched the Second Look Network in March 2023. Comprising over 250 members representing 100 organizations, public defender offices, and law school clinics nationwide, the network aims to provide comprehensive legal representation to individuals serving lengthy sentences. It also seeks to explore litigation strategies to expand second-look opportunities.

Officials noted that, as jurisdictions continue to embrace second-look legislation, the report underscores a shifting landscape in criminal justice reform efforts. With a focus on fairness, equity, and rehabilitation, the Second Look Movement could potentially stand out as a pivotal initiative in reshaping sentencing practices and promoting positive outcomes for incarcerated individuals and communities nationwide.

The Sentencing Project noted that there are currently about two million people in American prisons and jails—a 500% increase in imprisonment over the last 50 years. They said harsh sentencing policies, such as lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, have produced an aging prison population in the United States. Nearly one-third of people serving life sentences are 55 or older, amounting to over 60,000 people.

“Research has clearly established that lengthy sentences do not have a significant deterrent effect on crime and divert resources from effective public safety programs. Nevertheless, existing parole systems, like executive clemency, are ineffective at curtailing excessive sentences in most states due to their highly discretionary nature, lack of due process and oversight, and lack of objective consideration standards,” said Kara Gotsch, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “As a result, we’ve seen legislators consider and adopt second look legislation as a more effective means to reconsider an incarcerated person’s sentence in order to assess their fitness to reenter society. While much work remains, we’re thrilled to see this momentum across the country.”