For decades, the U.S. has put too many people in prison for far too long. The state of Illinois incarcerates more people per capita than other countries, except for Cuba, Rwanda and Turkmenistan. Second-chance laws and acts of clemency and compassionate release, through which governors and judges revisit individual criminal sentences imposed during the last half-century when incarceration rates have soared, are gaining momentum around the country. In response, opponents are deploying all-too-familiar but demonstrably false claims that these laws will cause crime rates to rise.
It is time to move away from fearmongering rhetoric and instead embrace efforts to unwind the criminal legal system’s most damaging harms by normalizing the use of second-chance laws, clemency and compassionate release.
Experts at the Brennan Center for Justice estimate that of the 2 million people who sit behind bars across the country, over half a million could be released with little risk to public safety. Yet in many places — including in the federal system and in Illinois, where we practice law — the legal system makes that all but impossible. Neither has a parole system nor a routine process to release people before the expiration of their sentence. It makes no difference if the sentence was unjust the day it was imposed or if the laws have changed. Once a person is incarcerated, the system treats everything about them — their health, successes, rehabilitation, family and humanity — as irrelevant. Their future is fixed the day they are sentenced.
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