WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), announced today they will introduce on Wednesday an ambitious bill that pioneers a groundbreaking approach to our justice system by giving a “second look” to those behind bars. The Second Look Act would allow any individual who has served at least 10 years in federal prison to petition a court to take a “second look” at their sentence before a judge and determine whether they are eligible for a sentence reduction or release. The legislation would also create a rebuttable presumption of release for petitioners who are 50 years of age or older, meaning the burden shifts to the government to demonstrate why the petitioner should remain behind bars. Despite the fact that recidivism rates are significantly lower for people released from prison who are 50 and older, roughly 250,000 individuals aged 50 and above remain behind bars, costing taxpayers about $16 billion annually.
This is true for William Underwood, age 65, who is currently serving a life sentence in New Jersey without the possibility of parole for a nonviolent drug crime he committed in 1988. Underwood has served more than 30 years behind bars — despite the fact that he is a model prisoner with a pristine record, a father of four, and a grandfather of three. Due to changes in our federal sentencing policies over the years, had Underwood been convicted under the existing federal sentencing guidelines, he would likely be home with his family now. Senator Booker met with Underwood in a federal prison in New Jersey in 2016. His story underscores the deep unfairness of our criminal justice system and highlight the type of individual our legislation is designed to help.
The bill is also inspired by Mathew Charles, the first person released from federal custody under the First Step Act, which was signed into law in December 2018. Senator Booker met with Charles shortly after his release in January 2019 and discussed ideas Charles had for legislation that would make the system more just and reasonable, based upon his own experience behind bars for more than 20 years. The bill is a result of that initial conversation and ongoing work with Charles.
“While the First Step Act was a momentous achievement, more work remains to be done,” said Senator Booker. “Our bill targets a harsh reality: there are hundreds of thousands of people behind bars – most of them people of color – who were sentenced under draconian laws during the height of the War on Drugs that we have since recognized were unfair. But many of the changes we’ve made to these laws have not been retroactive. That means there are now an enormous number of people in prison who have served lengthy prison terms, are not a threat to the community, and are ready for re-entry, but are stuck under these outdated sentencing laws. Those policies don’t make us any safer, and waste resources that could be used to invest in our communities and our future, rather than serving to discard the marginalized and most vulnerable. Our bill recognizes this unfairness and gives people who have served their time a ‘second look.’”
“Last year when the First Step Act was signed into law, we intended it to be just that — a first step. Now we begin our follow-up,” said Congressmember Bass. “We’ve made progress in our efforts to reform our criminal justice system so that Americans today aren’t subjected to the over-criminalization of the 1980s. This bill is a step to ensure that with that progress, we aren’t forgetting those who did fall victim to the War on Drugs and are sitting in prison due to draconian sentencing practices for crimes that don’t fit the punishment. Unjustifiably long prison sentences aren’t just immoral, but also a waste of valuable federal resources. I urge my colleagues in joining us to support this important piece of legislation,” said Rep. Bass.
“People can and do change. I have friends who are still incarcerated who are not the same people they were when they entered prison. This bill will make sure that people who have made significant strides towards rehabilitation in prison have an opportunity to return to society," said Matthew Charles.
“The Second Look bill will give incarcerated individuals who have served decades in prison the long overdue prospect of freedom. For 30 years, my siblings and I have held onto hope for our dad's freedom when freedom was never an option, but rather a hopeless dream. This hope, instituted by our father, William Underwood, wasn't always vocalized, but rather expressed constantly through his actions despite prison walls, as a devoted father and grandfather, a model prisoner, a mentor to his incarcerated peers and his determination to study the laws to advocate for his release. We are extremely grateful to Senator Booker for proposing the Second Look Act, as it gives a second opportunity to not only the incarcerated individual, but provides a second opportunity for their children and families to restore, repair, and renew those broken bonds that have been severely severed by such harsh, cruel, and unusual punishment, such as life without parole,” said Ebony Underwood, daughter of William Underwood.
The Second Look Act would:
Driven by his experience living and working in Newark and serving on its city council and as its Mayor, Booker has made reforming our broken criminal justice system a key legislative priority during his time in the Senate. Over the past five years, Booker has introduced numerous criminal justice reform proposals, including: the Marijuana Justice Act, the Fair Chance Act, the CARERS Act, the MERCY Act, and the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act.
He was also a key architect of the most sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system in decades, the First Step Act, which was signed into law on December 21. In particular, Booker was instrumental in adding key sentencing provisions to the package after opposing the House-passed version of the First Step Act first released in May 2018.
Booker also successfully fought to include in the final bill provisions that: effectively eliminate the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal supervision; effectively ban the shackling of pregnant women; require incarcerated individuals be placed within 500 miles of the nearest family member; and mandate that the Bureau of Prisons provide tampons and pads to all women behind bars free of charge.
Earlier this year, in March, Booker introduced the Next Step Act, the most far-reaching criminal justice bill to be introduced in Congress in decades. The bill would make a series of serious and substantial reforms to sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, law enforcement training, and re-entry efforts, including ending the federal ban on marijuana, eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, reinstating the right to vote in federal elections for formerly incarcerated individuals, and providing better training for law enforcement officers in implicit racial bias, de-escalation, and use-of-force.