Could a Second Chance be the Answer?
Louisiana has one of the U.S.’s toughest second-degree murder sentencing structures. If convicted, it is an automatic life without parole. The state currently has about 5,000 of its approximately 33,000 prisoners serving life sentences, 51 percent of those for a second-degree murder charge.
Hayward Jones is one such prisoner. He was locked up in 1996 for a burglary, which ended with the death of 71-year-old Daryll Van Dan. Although the autopsy and the pathologist’s report stated that Van Dan died of cardiac arrest and that there were no strangulation marks, Jones was still convicted of second-degree murder on the basis of his codefendant’s testimony.
Now he mentors students in a reentry program at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, as well as delivers speeches in surrounding churches and courthouses. “Nobody wants to be known for the worst moment in their life,” he stated. “We’ve all made mistakes, but we can move forward.”
Louisiana began passing stringent sentencing laws in the 1970s, starting with mandatory minimums and abolishing parole for life sentences, all in response to popular get-tough-on-crime policies. Discretionary sentencing was taken away from judges. Critics agree that the problem is mandatory sentencing does not take into consideration circumstances surrounding the crime.
It has created a system where the number of prisoners ineligible for parole exceeds that of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee combined and where more than half of them were 25 or younger when they committed their crime, and 75 percent are black. Nearly one in three prisoners in Louisiana will die before they are released.
Opponents of this sentencing scheme say that it does not take into account that recidivism drops as people get older, nor is it cost-effective to keep the elderly and infirm incarcerated.
Lawmakers attempted passing a criminal justice reform package in 2017. The bill called for parole eligibility for anyone over age 50 who had served at least 30 years on his or her sentence.
It was opposed by the state District Attorneys Association, claiming release of certain prisoners would pose a risk to public safety and would break promises made by prosecutors to victims’ families.
The end result was a modified bill that only reduced sentences and parole requirements for minor and nonviolent crimes.
Proponents for the tougher sentencing schemes say that it is important to keep in mind the impact of the crime on the victims and their families when considering reformation proposals for violent criminals. Jones applied for commutation, which saw wardens and many others of note come and testify to his change and accomplishments. It also saw Van Dan’s grandson testify that the life sentence given was appropriate.
Former district court Judge James Kuhn told Jones: “[S]ome may say that you have earned your right to be out, some might also say ... that you’ve earned your right to be right where you are — in prison.”
Those against mass incarceration say it is expensive and unnecessary to keep an aging prisoner population, expecting the state to cover healthcare costs and treatments. Yet before these changes can be realized, they believe that America’s response to violent crime must be addressed.
Corrections Department Executive Counsel Natalie LaBorde said, “Part of the challenge is getting the general public to endorse the idea of rehabilitation for violent convicted criminals. It is not about absolving anyone of the consequences of crime.... But it is also not about making a decision based on a set moment in time and throwing away the key forever.”
Source: theadvocate.com, The Sentencing Project