POSTED JAN 25, 2016 07:04 AM CST
U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill of Connecticut often wondered whether a defendant he sentenced to 18 years in prison was genuinely remorseful for his crime.
The defendant had murdered a potential witness in his role as enforcer for a gang of drug dealers, Underhill writes in an opinion column for the New York Times. After a disagreement with the gang, the enforcer told police about a stash house and fled. After his arrest in 2001, he confessed to the murder and aided prosecutors.
The prosecutor had filed a motion that allowed Underhill to ignore the mandatory life sentence. Underhill says he struggled with his decision. The defendant “had committed horrible crimes, but he also seemed to be making an unusually sincere effort to atone for them,” Underhill wrote. “So which man was I sentencing? The murderer or the remorseful cooperator?”
Underhill sentenced the defendant in 2006 to 18 years in prison, more prison time than recommended by the prosecutor. In 2012, Underhill met with the man in prison. The inmate had been promoted to supervisor at the prison industries factory, had attended classes, and had a girlfriend.
The meeting spurred Underhill to contact the prosecutor and the inmate’s lawyer to ask about shortening the sentence. “But they told me there was no straightforward way to shorten a federal inmate’s sentence, even if prison officials acknowledge that more jail time is a waste of time and money,” Underhill writes. “So he had to stay in prison, at an annual cost of $30,000 to taxpayers.”
Underhill cites the experience in calling for legislation that would allow inmates to petition for a sentence reduction based on “extraordinarily good conduct” and rehabilitation in prison. The “second-look review” would be available only if the defendant had the support of the prison warden, and only after the inmate had served at least half the sentence.
“The tragedy of mass incarceration has recently focused much attention on the need to reform three-strikes laws, mandatory minimums and the federal-sentencing guidelines, which often direct judges to impose excessive sentences,” Underhill writes. “A ‘second look’ to adjust sentences would give inmates an incentive to prepare themselves for productive lives on the outside, and allow judges like me to correct sentences that turn out, in hindsight, to be unnecessarily long.”