As our loyal readers well know, we generally do not blog about criminal matters unless something truly remarkable compels us to do so. Judge Stefan Underhill’s call to reform federal sentencing is one of those remarkable matters.
Judge Underhill, who sits on the U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, Connecticut, recently wrote an article in The New York Times titled “Did the Man I Sentenced to 18 Years Deserve It?“ In the article, the judge recounts sentencing a gang enforcer to 18 years in prison for killing a potential witness. His post-arrest behavior, however, ran counter to his crime — informing the police about a stash house, confessing to the murder, and testifying for the prosecution as a star witness. Although Judge Underhill handed down a lengthier sentence than that requested by the prosecutor, he struggled with the decision:
He had committed horrible crimes, but he also seemed to be making an unusually sincere effort to atone for them. So which man was I sentencing? The murderer or the remorseful cooperator?
Six years later, the judge met with the prisoner and discovered that he had turned his life around — he had secured a job at the prison industries factory and been promoted to supervisor, had recommendations from prison employees for jobs when he got out of prison, received certificates for attending classes, and had a girlfriend and a daughter with whom he was planning a future.
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. We also need a mechanism for judges to re-evaluate the sentences they’ve imposed.
Unable to find a way to shorten the man’s sentence, Judge Underhill outlined the idea for sentence reduction legislation for prisoners who exhibit “extraordinarily good conduct” and rehabilitation. The “second-look review” would require support from the warden once at least half of the sentence was served.
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. This would improve the fairness of our criminal justice system and increase the public’s confidence in our courts.
We applaud Judge Underhill and his efforts to reform federal sentencing. We hope his efforts prove successful.