Because of mandatory minimum sentences, prosecutors can charge or threaten to charge a person in such a way that they would be guaranteed a harsh prison sentence. By “up-charging,” or charging someone with a more serious crime than the case warrants or that they could prove in court, prosecutors purposely intimidate an accused person into pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. This creates a system where New Yorkers forfeit their constitutional rights to trial and are convicted without a chance to mount a meaningful defense. As a result, 96% of felony convictions and 99% of misdemeanor convictions in New York State are the results of guilty pleas, not a trial.
New York’s mandatory minimums also strip discretion from judges by requiring them to hand down prison sentences based on the charges imposed by prosecutors rather than their evaluations of individual cases. New York’s mandatory minimums and two- and three-strike laws were passed as part of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in the 1970s. It’s time to undo this harm and eliminate mandatory minimums.
Decades-long prison terms have become the norm in New York. Every year, nearly 1,000 people are sentenced to 10 or more years in prison, and over 4,000 people—more than 10% of people in prison—have been there for 15 years or longer. New York State has the third-largest population of people serving terms of life imprisonment in the country. Nearly 7,000 New Yorkers are currently serving life sentences. This is unconscionable given the human capacity to grow and change.
Those who are serving lengthy sentences have no opportunity to demonstrate to a judge that they have changed after years or decades in prison or that, given changed laws and norms, the sentence is no longer appropriate. Judges have spoken out about their inability to review sentences that they later deemed extreme or unjust. The Second Look Act will allow judges to review and reconsider excessive sentences.
During the 1990s, New York State slashed programs for incarcerated people and dramatically limited the time people could earn off their sentences. This included eliminating financial aid for incarcerated college students, decimating college-in-prison programs. New York also restricted access to merit time based on conviction type, eliminating key opportunities for rehabilitative programming and earned time for thousands of New Yorkers each year.
This is cruel—and counterproductive. Research shows that longer prison sentences increase rather than decrease recidivism. Research also shows that earned time opportunities help to prepare incarcerated people for reintegration, reducing recidivism rates and correctional costs. New York is substantially behind other states—including traditionally conservative states—on allowing incarcerated people to earn time off their sentences. The Earned Time Act will strengthen and expand “good time” and “merit time” laws to encourage personal transformation in prison and reunite families.