By Tracy Velázquez
Last month, after being denied a sentence commutation, Tarif Abdullah died in a Maryland prison. Even though Tarif was not the “trigger man,” at age 21 he was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in a crime that resulted in a fatality. At the time of his death from cancer, Tarif had served 25 years behind bars – effectively his entire adult life. He is one of many in Maryland unable to secure a commutation or parole due to the state law giving the governor authority to approve or deny release for "lifers."
In the past few years, driven by a combination of budget crises and changing public opinion, a number of states have reduced sentences for nonviolent offenses. Policymakers are beginning to understand that it actually hurts public safety to lock people up for breaking drug laws and other lower level offenses, and the longer someone is incarcerated the greater the obstacles they’ll face at release in successfully re-engaging with their families, their community, and the workforce.
A harder sell has been convincing people of the value in reducing the longest sentences for those people who were convicted of serious and violent offenses. The Pew Public Safety Performance Project recently surveyed on public views on crime and punishment. Almost nine in ten of those surveyed said they were in favor of reducing the time people were incarcerated for low risk, nonviolent offenses so that state funding could be used to keep people convicted of violent crime “in prison for their full sentence.” Elected officials are well aware of public attitudes towards people in prison for violent offenses. That’s why, when it’s up to politicians, so few people like Tarif are released.
However, with half of those in prison having convictions for violent offenses and one in 11 serving a life sentence, efforts to reduce prison population will stall unless we are willing to examine the “warehousing” of people often for decades who are convicted of what are classified as violent offenses. For example, many assume that people should stay locked up because they pose a danger to society. However, the risks of re-offending don’t correlate to “violent” or “nonviolent” offenses. Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, for example, reported that the chance someone with a conviction of murder or manslaughter will be reconvicted of the same offense is only three-tenths of one percent. And conversely, of those currently being sentenced for a serious violent crime, only 5.2 percent had a prior conviction for serious violent crime. Statistical risk assessments can also help identify those at lowest risk of reoffending. And there’s plenty of information on what supports and services (treatment, jobs, housing for example) are most closely related to success in the community – if we’re willing to fund them.
On Monday, I’ll be going to Little Rock, Arkansas to meet with family members and advocates about parole and sentence commutations for people serving life sentences and sentences of so many years that they are the equivalent of life. One of these people, HPM, was sentenced to 348 years for a bank robbery during which no one was hurt. HPM has already served 25 years, and while he was recommended for a shorter sentence by the Parole Board, the governor of Arkansas refused to approve it three times. While many people serving long and life sentences in Arkansas, Maryland and around the country did cause harm, and sometimes death, it is difficult to understand how society or the victims are better off by continuing to imprison people who could be safely released for 25 or 30 years or longer.
Civilization has been changing its idea of what justice is for millennia -- from being a personal matter between two involved people, clans or families, to having a third party like government or church decide what constitutes fair punishment for various crimes (beginning with Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” reckoning). This evolution has crystallized in the present-day United States into the unparalleled use of imprisonment as a source of “justice.” Clearly, we must develop a new paradigm – one that not only protects safety and costs less, but also one that provides benefits to society as a whole. In addition to doing much more to help people stay out of the justice system in the first place, we must also find ways to address harm besides prison, which provides little for victims except government-sanctioned retribution.
As the saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Clearly alternatives MUST be created if policy makers and the public are to leave behind a reliance on long and life sentences. Even though there are some who benefit by the continued use of the “hammer” of incarceration, we all gain much more through tools that instead of tearing down, can build up people and communities. We at JPI are excited by our role in helping move this evolution of justice forward.
Tracy Velázquez is the Executive Director of JPI.