Second Look Sentencing

It has become increasingly clear that any meaningful effort to turn the tide of mass incarceration must grapple with the epidemic of extreme sentences that has taken hold of the United States prison system.

Consequences of Extreme Sentences  Recommendations  State Reform  Initiatives & Projects   Additional Resources on Second Look

Second Look Sentencing

While many individuals are behind bars for only a short time, the backbone of mass incarceration is people serving very lengthy sentences – often decades-long, and far longer than they would serve for comparable crimes elsewhere in the world. At the federal level alone, 52% are serving sentences of 10 years or more and 30% are serving sentences of 15 years or more (Bureau of Prisons, 2022). Additionally, as of 2016, more than 200,000 people were serving life or virtual life sentences, over two-thirds of these individuals being people of color (The Sentencing Project, 2021). 

Not only have lengthy sentences been shown to have no impact on an individual’s tendency to reoffend (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2012), there is strong evidence indicating that individuals tend to quickly “age out” of their high crime years (United States Sentencing Commission, 2017; The Sentencing Project, 2017). As of November 2022, 66% of the federal prison population was 36 years old or older, and nearly one in five individuals were over 50, well above the ages most at risk for crime (Bureau of Prisons, 2022).

Society’s emerging recognition that it has over-used imprisonment is exemplified in a wide range of new statutes, rollbacks of mandatory minimums, changes to sentencing guidelines, and updated charging and plea-bargaining policies in prosecutors’ offices. Changes have so far been most prevalent at the front end: reducing the potential for individuals to enter the criminal legal system. However, at the current pace of decarceration, it will still take 75 years to cut the total U.S. prison population by half, raising questions about what additional solutions should be pursued to accelerate reform (The Sentencing Project, 2018). To tackle the problem of mass incarceration at its core, reforms must also target those currently experiencing incarceration. Second Look legislation works to do just that, addressing the critical problem of harsh sentences head-on by providing individuals with an opportunity for resentencing or a sentence reduction after they have served a certain amount of time in prison.

Consequences Associated with Extreme Sentences

NACDL strongly supports efforts to adopt Second Look legislation to combat the detrimental consequences of lengthy and harsh sentences. These excessive sentences are counterproductive to justice, producing a significant racially disparate impact and raising costs to taxpayers.

Significant Racial Disparities in Sentencing - The racial disparities in sentencing are overwhelmingly clear. In 2020, 46% of the approximately 203,000 individuals serving life and ‘virtual life’ sentences were African American, and 16% were Latinx (The Sentencing Project, 2021). Racial disparities are most pronounced among sentences for life without parole (LWOP), with African Americans making up at least two-thirds of the LWOP population in nine states (The Sentencing Project, 2017). These trends impact youth as well, with people of color making up over 80% of youth sentenced to life- and virtual-life, over half of them African Americans (The Sentencing Project, 2017).

More on Racial Disparities in Sentencing

Financial Costs of Incarceration - State and federal governments bear the financial burden of overincarceration. On average, states will spend $33,274 to incarcerate one person annually, ranging from a low of $14,780 in Alabama to a high of $69,355 in New York (Vera Institute for Justice, 2015). These costs only grow as those incarcerated age, increasing their need for specialized medical attention and support services (U.S. Department of Justice, 2016).

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NACDL’s Recommendations & Second Look Process

To assist lawmakers in adopting Second Look legislative reforms, NACDL released model legislation and an accompanying report – Second Look = Second Chance: The NACDL Model “Second Look” Legislation. The model legislation provides a vehicle for legislatures to safely reduce the number of individuals serving excessive, counterproductive sentences: guaranteeing all incarcerated individuals a “Second Look” once they have spent at least a decade in prison.

NACDL urges a threshold of ten years for reconsideration of lengthy sentences. With limited opportunities for rehabilitation in prison, ten years is a reasonable period of time to achieve the goal of sentencing while not eroding an individual’s long-term prospects for life on the outside.

As a practical matter, the right to petition for resentencing vests upon actual time served, making only those serving lengthy sentences eligible for a second look. Similarly, in order to safely and effectively maximize decarceration, NACDL recommends that states make resentencing available to every individual incarcerated, regardless of their underlying offense, or the age at which they committed that offense. 

State Reform

At the state level, Second Look reforms have primarily focused on youth, reflecting national efforts to provide those convicted before the age of 18 with an opportunity for a second chance. For example, in Delaware, Florida, Oregon, and North Dakota, youth become eligible for a sentence modification or a second look hearing after serving anywhere between 20 years and half of their original sentence. In California, individuals convicted of crimes committed before the age of 18 who are sentenced to life without parole are eligible for resentencing after serving 15 years, with certain exceptions based on the offense. View existing second look laws.

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