Booker’s right: Paying $60,000 a year to jail one geriatric inmate deserves ‘a second look’ | Editorial

Posted Jul 28, 2019

Sen. Cory Booker has long been a champion of criminal justice reform, of scaling back the tragic consequences of mass incarceration – which, above all, means granting more prisoners early release.

It’s something he’s vowed to do even without Congress, if elected president, by expanding his use of clemency, especially for old timers serving draconian sentences.

So far, the senator has taken small steps, where he can achieve bipartisan consensus. But a bill he just introduced, called the “Second Look Act,” reflects this more ambitious agenda.

It would require judges to consider early release for aging inmates who’ve served at least a decade in the federal prison system, to assess whether an inmate still poses a danger to society.

Consider how likely you were to make reckless decisions in your 20’s, and compare that to your 50s: The difference, science tells us, is about impulse control and brain development. A study last year from the Justice Policy Institute found that only 3 percent of elderly prisoners are arrested again after their release. Most people age out of crime.

Yet we pay as much as $60,000 annually – twice the cost of the average prisoner – to keep older felons behind bars.

At the federal level, more than half the inmates are locked up on nonviolent drug charges. Still, violent offenders could also get early release under Booker’s bill – among the likely reasons he hasn’t yet found a Republican cosponsor.

“Tough-on-crime” politicians live in fear of the outlier, the old guy who gets out and kills again, as in the recent case of a 77-year-old released from a state prison in Maine, who reoffended. There’s an exception to every rule. But it doesn’t change the piles of research showing how rare that is.

Until now, reform efforts have been directed at low-level, nonviolent offenders, the low-hanging fruit. Logically speaking, though, we shouldn’t stop there.

At the state level, where the majority of inmates are violent offenders, cases already get a second look by a parole board. Yet there’s no such thing as parole in the federal system.

Anyone sentenced to longer than 10 years deserves a “second look” – even violent offenders like Darnell Epps, who served 17 years for a murder he was involved in as a 20-year-old and is now a student at Cornell University.

The victim was a gang member who, days earlier, had sexually assaulted his brother’s wife, Epps wrote last October in a New York Times op-ed, one in which he argued that the older inmates who mentored him and kept him out of trouble behind bars also deserve a chance at earlier release. And they do.

We don’t need draconian sentences to deter people from committing crimes. Most have no idea what the penalty is when they offend, says Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. What deters is the certainty of punishment, not the length of the sentence, decades of research has found.

So, like Booker, focus on the bottom line: It’s a waste of tax dollars and lives to continue to incarcerate people who are extremely unlikely to commit new crimes.

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