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Panel Studying Long Sentences Focuses On Inmate Rehab, Victims

Better rehabilitation programs for prisoners and improved services for crime victims are high-priority recommendations of a national task force on the effects of long-term prison sentences, members told a webinar hosted by the think tank Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).

The council recruited a group of leaders co-chaired by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).

Task force participants discussed their final report on a review of prison sentences of 10 years or longer. At year-end of 2020, 63% of people in prison were serving a long prison sentence, up from 46% in 2005 and 56% in 2019.

Task force director John Maki said the CCJ panel was formed with the idea of, “helping all victims and survivors to find healing from the impact of trauma, while also allowing for the possibility of redemption.”

The task force relied on data to see how long prison sentences affect the prison system. Maki said the recommendations were made considering many factors, including prison conditions, victim services, and the general structure of the justice system.

The guiding principles of the recommendations, Maki said, are safety, healing, and recovery. The task force is asking policymakers to prioritize funding to reduce violence and victimization, which factor into long sentences.

“Along with that, we wanted to see supporting services for victims of violent crime, and that includes victims who might have overlapping, offending and victimization experiences,” Maki said.

Benjamin Tucker, First Deputy Commissioner of the New York Police Department, believes that investing in such interventions not only reduces violent crime but also helps in acknowledging victims and survivors, which is crucial in rehabilitation.

“There is for sure opportunity to safely decrease the length of long sentences while also investing those resources that we save in criminal justice and community interventions,” Tucker said.

He believes the recommendations focused on improving services are crucial because public safety is a shared responsibility, which ensures that victims have access to services, including people that are disproportionally impacted by violence, especially in communities of color.

The task force suggests reviewing victim impact statements to implement and evaluate restorative justice programs within prisons.

Katheryn Bocanegra, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, said it’s critical to listen and incorporate perspectives of victims and survivors of violence when deciding sentencing policies.

She has seen the voices and experiences of victims being represented in ways that “are inconsistent with how they articulate what they need to heal and what they need to feel safe after a violent event,” Bocanegra said.

The task force emphasized incentivizing prisoners' participation in rehabilitation programs by offering more sentencing credits. The panel heavily emphasized the possibility of change, redemption, and giving people the best opportunities available.

“We want to make sure that people who are serving long sentences have access to educational, vocational, other kinds of opportunities ... to show that they've been rehabilitated but also to become themselves a living example of change,” Maki said.


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