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Son titre (Prosecutors Must Seek Justice, Not Prison Time) en dit long.
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Most days, Joseph Sisneros wakes up at 4 a.m., driving in the dark through his hometown to work long days as a truck driver. A few hours later, Thanh Tran and his wife care for their infant son as Thanh prepares to go to the California state Capitol for work. Around that same time, Troy Dunmore makes breakfast with his fiancée before commuting to his job as a substance abuse counselor. Joseph, Thanh, and Troy have one thing in common: they were all released from prison by the same prosecutors who sought their original sentences.
Before 2019, Joseph, Thanh, and Troy were three of the nearly 2 million people behind bars in the United States—the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. In the 1980s and 1990s, our country adopted policies that sent more people to prison for longer periods of time. Today, we are reckoning with the result: people who were incarcerated as youths before their brains could fully develop; elderly people languishing behind bars who have aged out of crime, whose medical needs cost taxpayers steeply; and the more than half of people currently in prison who have already served 10-plus years—more than a decade of growth and reflection that so often leads to transformative change.
Many people believe that a prosecutor’s role is to seek convictions and long sentences, putting people in prison and relying heavily on incarceration to keep communities safe. But in recent years, more and more prosecutors across the political spectrum are looking back at past sentences to make sure that the people they sentenced to prison should still be there. This emerging area of law is called Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR). It allows prosecutors to bring a case back to court for potential release if the sentence is based on outdated policies or the person is rehabilitated. It’s the same law that brought Joseph, Thanh, and Troy home.
In August, the country’s largest association of lawyers, the American Bar Association (ABA), agreed with this principle and just issued a formal resolution urging states and the federal government to adopt PIR laws. The ABA’s landmark resolution endorses PIR and deems it a necessary tool to strengthen the criminal justice system.
The ABA’s resolution comes after years of proof-testing the law. In 2018, when I worked to pass the first PIR law in the country, I was surprised to find out there was no legal way for prosecutors to do this work. Now, just four years later, prosecutors have led the charge to pass this law across six states (California, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Louisiana, and Minnesota) and proposed it in six others. Through the PIR process, prosecutors are methodically reviewing cases, closely considering a person’s years of rehabilitation, their in-prison behavior, whether they have a robust reentry plan, and, crucially, input from the victim. Only after all these steps will a prosecutor recommend a person for release to a judge, who ultimately holds the final decision. As a former prosecutor myself, it’s always been important to me that the law has built-in checks and balances and ensures victims are included in the process.
But the biggest measure of success by far is how people are living their lives once they’re home. To date, prosecutors have initiated the safe release of nearly 800 peoplenationwide. This means Thanh can get his kids ready for school in the morning; Troy gets to mentor others struggling with addiction as heonce did; Joseph gets to help his family save up for their dream house.
Having sat down with Joseph, Thanh, Troy, and dozens of others released through the law, I know that their communities are safer and stronger with them back home. Still, there are so many people behind bars who could also benefit from a second chance. This is why, alongside the American Bar Association, I urge all 2,300 elected prosecutors across the country to implement this law and do exactly what they do every day: further the interests of justice.
Hillary Blout is founder and executive director of For The People, the nonprofit working with prosecutors to look back at past sentences. In 2018, she conceptualized, drafted, and secured the passage of the first Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing law in the country.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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