New Division Responds to Twin Crises of Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequity, and COVID-19. Unit Led by Former Deputy Public Defender
BALTIMORE (December 7, 2020) – Today, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced the creation of a Sentencing Review Unit (SRU) at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO). The SRU will review cases of certain incarcerated people to determine whether the office supports their release.
“Our state has a mass incarceration problem caused by lengthy and excessive sentences, which are disproportionately imposed on people of color. My office’s duty to fairness and justice does not end at sentencing. Evidence shows that people age-out of crime, and revisiting harsh sentences demonstrates our belief in rehabilitation and redemption,” said State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. “At the same time, amid a second wave of COVID-19, I have a responsibility to protect public health by reducing the incarcerated population to prevent the further spread of this disease.”
MASS INCARCERATION AND RACIAL INEQUITY: PROSECUTORS HAVE HISTORICALLY PLAYED A ROLE AND CONTRIBUTED TO THE EPIDEMIC OF MASS INCARCERATION AND RACIAL INEQUITY IN THIS COUNTRY AND HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO RIGHT THAT WRONG, WHICH IS WHY SAO IS LAUNCHING A SENTENCING REVIEW UNIT.
The United States of America is an outlier in the world and Maryland is an outlier in the nation when it comes to punishing people- particularly People of Color.
America is the largest jailer of people in the world, with the punitive severity and excessive nature of sentences disproportionately impacting Black and Brown people. Here, in the State of Maryland, African-Americans make up a mere 30% of the State population, yet comprise 70% of the state’s prison population- that is more than double the national average.
According to DPSCS data, almost 80% of the 2200 prisoners currently serving life sentences throughout our State are Black. 94% of the more than 800 prisoners sentenced to life in Baltimore City are Black.
The status quo is neither just nor sustainable. Prosecutors have a responsibility to seek justice over convictions and this new unit will help put into practice the imperative need to review and when appropriate revise sentences that are incompatible with current practices.
COVID-19 - OUR PRISONS AND JAILS REMAIN A PUBLIC HEALTH RISK AND A BREEDING GROUND FOR COVID-19, IMPERILING ALL OF THE PEOPLE INSIDE THOSE FACILITIES AS WELL AS THE BROADER COMMUNITIES. WE CAN REDUCE THAT THREAT AND THE AMOUNT OF PRECIOUS LOCAL RESOURCES SPENT ON INCARCERATION BY DOING WHAT MANY OTHER CITIES HAVE DONE - RELEASE THOSE WHO POSE NO PUBLIC SAFETY RISK TO THE COMMUNITY.
Finally, this Unit is a new and integral part of our comprehensive response to the COVID-19 crisis. And while my office has been successful in reducing the number of people entering the jail system by almost 45% due to our decarceration policies and by supporting the early releases of certain individuals throughout this global pandemic, we’ve always and will continue to balance public health and public safety.
And in so doing with this second surge of Coronavirus cases, we must keep in mind that our prisons and jails remain a public health risk and a breeding ground for COVID-19 that imperils not only every person inside of those facilities, but the broader community that we live in.
COVID-19 has proven to be a crisis for the criminal justice system, largely in part because of the pre-existing dreadful stain of mass incarceration in this country, which has led to unsanitary, overcrowded and dehumanizing conditions of confinement.
We have seen over the past year that once that virus enters the prison, it spreads like wildfire because quarantining and social distancing, which are essential prevention strategies for the virus, cannot work for people living in crowded dormitories with 70 to a room or having meals together.
We can and we should reduce that threat and the amount of local precious resources spent on incarceration by doing what many other cities have done, which is to release those who pose no public safety risk to the community.
And while justice stakeholders in our State, which has included the courts, police, my office, the Governor, and the department of public safety and correctional services have all made attempts to de-populate the jails and prisons in the past 9 months; the question still remains, whether we’ve done ENOUGH for those most susceptible to contracting COVID-19 in prison serving life sentences?
This is a question being asked not only by my office, but a number of offices throughout the country that have already established Sentencing Review Units, that are doing or intend to do similar work such as: State’s Attorney, Aisha Braveboy’s office in Prince George’s County, right here in MD; Dan Satterberg’s office in Seattle, Larry Krasner’s office in Philadelphia; Chesa Boudin’s office in San Francisco; Eric Gonzalez’s office in Brooklyn; and as of today, George Gascon’s office in Los Angeles, CA.
The criteria set for initial review but not wholly sufficient for a recommendation to support release are:
1. Individuals who have a documented serious medical condition according to CDC that places them at a higher risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19;
2. Individuals over the age of 60 who have spent more than 25 years in prison on a life sentence OR Individuals who have spent more than 25 years in prison on a life sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile (age 17 and under).
AT A TIME WHEN BUDGETS ARE ALREADY TIGHT DUE TO COVID, IT IS A WASTE OF MONEY TO INCARCERATE THOSE WHO POSE NO PUBLIC SAFETY RISK: INDIVIDUALS OVER THE AGE OF 60 ARE NOT A THREAT TO PUBLIC SAFETY.
According to developmental criminology – that is, criminal behavior decreases significantly as people age, and therefore, lengthy and extended incarceration often does not promote community safety but rather imposes exorbitant costs of confinement on taxpayers. FBI Crime Statistics bear that out with people over 60 responsible for 3% of violent crime arrests nationally. Here in MD, the Unger ruling saw the release of 200 lifers. The majority were over 60, and 97% have been successful in re-acclimating into their communities and haven’t re-offended nor returned to prison.
Despite this fact, the United States spends millions of dollars to incarcerate elderly that have “aged out” of crime. In fact, according to The Sentencing Project, “The cost for life imprisonment is in the range of $1 million per adult prisoner, with prison expenses rising precipitously after middle-age.” Again, in light of this virus, it is a waste of money to continue incarcerate those who pose no public safety risk.
JUVENILE LIFERS DESERVE SECOND CHANCES. IN THE STATE OF MD, JUVENILE LIFERS HAVE EFFECTIVELY BECOME JUVENILE LIFERS WITHOUT PAROLE AND IF THE GOAL IS REHABILITATION- AND IT SHOULD BE-THEN WE NEED TO RELY ON THE SCIENCE THAT SHOWS JUVENILES SHOULD BE TREATED DIFFERENTLY THAN ADULTS.
In 2016, The Supreme Court outlawed mandatory juvenile life without the possibility of parole. This ruling was made after reviewing new scientific evidence on the juvenile brain, which recognized that we should treat juveniles differently from adults. Twenty-three States across the nation have banned juvenile life without the possibility of parole sentences, recognizing that what you do at 16 years of age should not always define who you are at 70 years of age.
In Maryland, there are approximately 300 juvenile lifers (people given life sentences for crimes committed prior to age 18) that have effectively become juvenile lifers without parole because Maryland is one of three states that require approval from the governor as part of the parole process.
In 1995, Maryland’s Governor Glendening removed the pre-release of all lifers in the correctional facilities with his famous quote “life means life.” This has since been the tone for every governor succeeding him until in 2019, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, approved parole for three juvenile lifers. There are currently approximately 200 juvenile lifers that are parole eligible.
VICTIMS/WITNESSES/SURVIVOR SUPPORT IS PARAMOUNT AND BENEFIT FROM RESTORATIVE JUSTICE SERVICES THAT ALLOW THEM TO HEAL.
State’s Attorney Mosby was once a survivor herself when her cousin was killed outside of her home in broad daylight when he was mistaken as a neighborhood drug dealer. Victim/witness/survivor support has always and will remain a priority for this administration and especially for the SRU.
Becky Feldman will head the SRU. She is the former Deputy Public Defender for Maryland, and represented hundreds of inmates at post-conviction proceedings, resentencing proceedings, parole retake hearings, and parole hearings with a focus on the geriatric inmate population. She also managed the Unger project that resulted in the release of nearly 200 men who had served in excess of 30 years in prison. Feldman also has the ability to empathize with victims of crime, having tragically lost her brother to homicide in Baltimore City in 2000. While two individuals were arrested and ultimately charged and convicted of the crime, Becky was inspired to work in the criminal justice system fighting for the release of inmates because it was therapeutic for her. It was a part of her healing process.
“It was the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office who changed my life almost exactly 20 years ago by bringing those responsible for my brother’s death to justice,” said Feldman. “I deeply appreciate the importance of closure and holding people accountable. But it was my time at the Public Defender’s office representing incarcerated individuals that brought me healing and purpose. There is so much humanity, talent and kindness behind prison walls, and we cannot give up on people just because they are behind bars.”
With the start of this unit, Becky intends to consult, engage and advise victims families throughout the review process. To that end, the SRU has partnered with the Restorative Justice Organization, Restorative Response Baltimore, to offer a process for where those who have been harmed and their support system and those who have caused harm along with their support system can voluntarily engage in a restorative dialogue. This process will be offered to those directly involved in and affected by harm to attempt to reconcile, heal, and empathize to build community and connection. This process will be facilitated by trained invested facilitators. Facilitators will speak with everyone participating in the dialogue process to find out if they are interested in attending, who needs to be present, what to expect, as well as what resources may need to be present. If individuals aren't interested in participating in the restorative justice dialogue we will attempt to provide resources to support health and healing.
Regardless of how victim or survivor decides to proceed, the SAO will also connect individuals with our Victims and Witness Services unit so the victims/witnesses/or survivors can obtain
services such as lifetime grief counseling through family bereavement and grief counseling, information on the legal process, and more.
SECOND CHANCE LEGISLATION.
The SAO will also be supporting legislation in the next session that would provide for additional sentencing reform, such as the Second Look Act. The office also supports a similar bill by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) which would allow federal prisoners to be given a sentencing review in certain instances.
For more details on the Unit, and its first case, click here for a factsheet and here for information of how to apply to have a case reviewed.
LOCAL AND NATIONAL SUPPORT FOR THE SAO SRU.
The SAO’s new initiative has been endorsed by several local and national organizations and experts.
“COVID-19 poses a unique and deadly threat to those who live and work in our nation’s prisons and jails. It is critical to protect the public health of our communities and we must do all that we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in custodial settings,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). “I am proud to have introduced the Emergency Community Supervision Act to take action to address the COVID-19 crisis in our federal prisons, and I commend the City of Baltimore and State’s Attorney Mosby for taking the initiative at the local level with the announcement of their sentencing review unit. I hope other cities and states will follow their lead.”
"State’s Attorney Mosby’s creation of a Sentencing Review Unit to safely reduce incarceration, while providing increased counseling and restorative justice for crime survivors, is an effective and smart approach to keeping communities safe and healthy. Excessive incarceration not only undermines public health and public safety, it often absorbs more focus and resources than meeting the core needs of crime victims. This is especially true in underserved communities that experience crime and violence the most - the same communities disproportionately being harmed by the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID. As crime victims, we know that many people in prison were once victims of crime themselves, and we want public policies that stop cycles of crime and support our recovery from trauma. This announcement is an important step towards improving how we approach public safety." Aswad Thomas, Managing Director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a national network of tens of thousands of crime victims that is a flagship program of Alliance for Safety and Justice.
“I applaud State’s Attorney Mosby for offering individuals a second chance through the creation of the sentencing review unit. I know how victims and family members feel. My brother was killed in 1988. But I am here to say that people can change. I forgave my brother’s killer and recognize that prison can change people. We are not the worst thing we do. I fully support the State’s Attorney’s efforts at restorative justice and victim support, and her passion for criminal justice reform.” Darryl Green, Deep Forgiveness.
"Prison and jails have been hotbeds of COVID-19 infection. These facilities house large numbers of older adults who are at high risk of severe COVID-19 infection, and who present little public safety threat. It is critical to reduce this population of vulnerable individuals to protect their health and that of the larger Maryland community." Carolyn Beth Sufrin, A.M., M.D., Ph.D - Johns Hopkins University.
“We can’t take on mass incarceration without dismantling every part of its architecture. Part of how we got here is by building barriers to release even for the most deserving people who have served many decades and demonstrated their remorse and change. We applaud this effort to recognize the important role that State’s Attorneys must play to correct ongoing injustices and to invest in restorative approaches for our communities." Sonia Kumar, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.
"Safely reducing the incarcerated population is both merciful and in our public heath interest given that jails and prisons are known hot spots for the virus." - Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
“Sentencing review units recognize that people have the capacity to grow and change--they recognize the possibilities for remorse and redemption. We are thrilled that the Baltimore City State's Attorney has taken this step towards reevaluating sentences that may have seemed just when handed down but are no longer necessary to keep the public safe or ensure rehabilitation and we look forward to working with them.” Leigh Goodmark, Marjorie Cook Professor of Law and Co-Director, Clinical Law Program, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
“By releasing people from prison who are vulnerable to Covid-19, the State’s Attorney’s office is showing compassion and good sense,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law and a former assistant district attorney in New York City. “This effort is the humane response to the devastating impact of the coronavirus on those behind bars, where social distancing isn’t feasible. And, since more than 95% of the people in our nation’s prisons will be released and re-enter their communities at some point, prioritizing early release for the elderly and others who are most susceptible to Covid-19 won’t jeopardize public safety.”
“Because of draconian sentencing polices in Maryland too many people are locked up for long prison terms without a meaningful opportunity for release or the hope of a better life. As a result, we are seeing an aging prison population in Maryland. Further, the current system exacerbates racial disparities in Maryland, which already has the highest proportion of people of color in prison in the country. Because of this, I applaud State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby on launching a sentencing review unit. Given Maryland’s dysfunctional justice system and the resultant racial disparities, I can’t overstate how much need there is for the new sentencing review unit,” said Keith Wallington, State Based Strategist for Justice Policy Institute.
“The establishment of the Sentencing Review Unit is a welcome opportunity to work collaboratively the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office to secure freedom for individuals who demonstrate change, remorse, and rehabilitation. COVID-19’s spread in our correctional
facilities has highlighted the urgent need to reduce Maryland’s prison population. Our decarceration efforts must include those who are serving long sentences but pose no further risk to public safety. I look forward to working with the new unit to bring much needed relief to my clients,” said Lila Meadows, Clinical Instructor, University of Maryland School of Law.
“About one in 5 people in Maryland prisons is serving a life or virtual life sentence despite decades of research that most people age out of criminal behavior and no longer present a risk to public safety. We applaud the State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for recognizing her role in undoing some of the harm caused by extreme sentences. Thousands of people in Maryland prisons, overwhelmingly African American, can be safely returned home right now. We urge the legislature to build upon this momentum and allow all people serving long sentences a chance for change and freedom.” Amy Fettig, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project.
“In light of the public health crisis facing prisons and jails, and the chronic health conditions disproportionately affecting the incarcerated that make them more susceptible to severe Covid-19 symptoms, we are encouraged by State’s Attorney Mosby’s leadership in this moment. Adolescents are uniquely capable of positive change, and the overwhelming majority of youth who commit crimes mature into positively oriented adults. State’s Attorney Mosby’s commitment to prioritizing review of cases involving individuals who committed crimes under the age of a 18 reflects sound and important policy to protect the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our community.” Heather Renwick, Legal Director, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.