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    Second Chances

    By Assemblymember Phil Ting–

    California went through a decades-long “tough-on-crime” period when the popular response to public safety concerns was to lock up criminals and throw away the key. But all that got us was an expensive, overcrowded prison system, costing taxpayers more than $12 billion a year. Our state has the second largest prison population in the nation and the highest proportion of inmates serving long-term sentences.

    I don’t believe longer prison terms make communities safer. Emerging research builds a compelling case that supports making changes to these antiquated policies. A University of Chicago report, for instance, found longer prison sentences have marginal effects on reducing recidivism. A separate study by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that prison terms could by shortened by 25% across the board without a negative effect on public safety.

    That’s why I wrote Assembly Bill 2942, a new state law that went into effect at the beginning of the year. It gives local district attorneys the power to revisit excessively long sentences and facilitate the release of inmates if their continued incarceration is no longer in the interest of justice.

    Advocates say criminal justice reforms should be more inclusive, reaching often ignored portions of the prison population. Prior reform efforts have solely focused on low-level, non-violent crimes. It’s time we acknowledge that individuals convicted of more serious offenses can also turn their lives around and deserve a second chance. This is especially true for young offenders who are more susceptible to peer pressure, less aware of the consequences of their acts and lack impulse control. But there are also examples across other age groups.

    Take the case of Arnulfo Garcia, who received a life sentence under California’s three-strikes law for burglary. After serving more than 16 years, Garcia, at age 64, was a model inmate, becoming a writer/editor of the San Quentin News, completing drug treatment and leading support groups for fellow prisoners. In 2017, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen was able to secure Garcia’s release, but only after what Rosen called “legal gymnastics.” It should be easier than that.

    The people likely to benefit most from AB 2942 are those who received sentence enhancements, resulting in prison terms beyond the normal range. Judges may consider adding more years to one’s sentence based on certain circumstances, such as prior convictions or whether a weapon was used. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has found that sentence enhancements, particularly related to drug offenses, disproportionately affect African Americans and other racial minorities.

    Not every inmate, though, will qualify for a sentence review. Public safety remains a key priority. Before being considered, candidates must have completed rehabilitation, served at least half of his or her sentence and no longer pose a threat to society. Only then can a district attorney reevaluate the prison term and recommend re-sentencing that could lead to parole. The final step requires a court to approve the release.

    The Sentence Review Project was created to implement AB 2942, serving as the clearinghouse for people in prison who may be eligible for release and/or their family. The organization can help to gather the necessary facts and documentation. Once complete, staff can submit an application for the local district attorney to review and advocate on their clients’ behalf.

    Everybody deserves an opportunity for redemption. If you know someone who could benefit from the new law, I encourage you to visit the Sentence Review website ( ) for more information.

    Phil Ting represents the 19th Assembly District, which includes the Westside of San Francisco along with the communities of Broadmoor, Colma and Daly City.