The ongoing struggle to reduce prison sentences

I've been representing Missouri on a Sentencing Project group on parole issues. The monthly phone calls have been very interesting, but I haven't been sure what to report back to the Missouri task force. Regular participants are from New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and California.

Everybody faces different problems. Some parole decisions are public, and individual board members have been hounded out of office for being too liberal. Other governors appoint board members who simply don't grant paroles. Some states have abolished parole and have determinate sentencing with a clear process (more or less) of time off for good behavior. But regardless of the sentencing process, regardless of the parole board operations, sentences are long, and almost nobody is shortening them.

Nicole Porter from The Sentencing Project suggests that we mount a national publicity campaign to shorten sentences and review the sentences of people who have been locked up more than, say, 15 years.

This would be a five-year campaign, at least. We would probably need to hire a public relations firm to help us make a plan and frame our case. But even without a national buy-in, our Missouri task force could write op-eds, give local talks, sponsor public events. That's a proposal I'm making to the task force.

However, we can't neglect legislative work while we run a five-year publicity campaign. The one big piece of prison reform that has become law in the past 10 years was written by a first-term Republican and retired FBI agent in 2009. The law cuts parole time in half for good behavior. Then the legislator was redistricted out of his seat, and we lost a strong advocate for criminal justice reform.

The bill sponsor worked incredibly hard on the bill. He had the respect of his peers. He had the support of the Department of Corrections. He had the support of the Republican leadership. It was a problem Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. had identified in his State of the Judiciary speech. The Pew Research criminal justice reform group supported it.

So Missouri sentences are being reduced once parole is granted. We need to find another legislator who understands the problem, has legislative credibility and will put all his or her effort into writing legislation that actually reduces sentences in the criminal code. And we need to find another legislator who will put the same energy and talent into reducing the sentences of people already in prison by making laws retroactive or by establishing clear criteria for the parole board or by writing a new law that makes everyone eligible for parole consideration at some point.

Sentences are too long. That's expensive in dollars and cents. It costs the families of the inmates and doesn't increase public safety. Over the last 30 years, the length of sentences has increased steadily. Now we have to figure out how to reverse the process.

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