Senator Cory Booker Proposes "Second Look" Legislation to Reform Prison Sentencing

Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has introduced a bill that would allow incarcerated individuals who have served at least 10 years of their sentence in a federal prison to get a “second look” at their sentence before a judge who will determine if they are eligible for a reduction or to be released. Booker and US Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced the Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act in the Senate on July 17, according to a press release.

The proposed legislation would ask the government to prove why an older incarcerated individual should remain in prison.

There are 250,000 people who are aged 50 and older currently behind bars. Booker states that recidivism rates are significantly lower for those who are past the age of 50. “While the First Step Act was a momentous achievement, more work remains to be done,” said Booker in a statement. “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served lengthy prison terms, are not a threat to the community, and are ready for re-entry, but are stuck under these outdated sentencing laws,” Booker continued. The proposed bill would establish criteria for courts to decide if an incarcerated individual is ready for reentry and would also mandate the US Sentencing Commission to issue an annual public report about the effect of this policy, as well as its racial impact. The bill is inspired and named after William Underwood and Matthew Charles. Charles was the first person to be released after the First Step Act was signed in 2018 by President Donald Trump.

The law was first introduced by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and it reduces mandatory minimum sentences in some cases. It would also make sure that formerly incarcerated individuals can have access to employment and other incentives for reentry. The New Jersey Senator said in the press release that he spoke with Charles after he was released and discussed how to fix the criminal justice system. Underwood, 65, is still in prison and is serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime in 1988. Booker stated that Underwood’s story stems from the “deep unfairness of our criminal justice system.”

“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 Charles in a statement.

Congresswoman Bass stated that the proposed bill is a follow-up to the First Step Act and will ensure progress in the criminal justice system.

“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,” said Bass. “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.”

In April, Booker and Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, introduced a bicameral bill that would assist formerly incarcerated individuals to obtain federal documents once they are released from prison. The bill, called The New Pathways Act, provides guidelines for the Bureau of Prisons to ensure that incarcerated people receive important federal documents once they are released from prison, such as their Social Security card, birth certificate, and driver’s license. “One of those obstacles may seem insignificant — nothing more than a flimsy piece of plastic — but it is priceless currency in a world that revolves around having some form of a government-issued ID,” Booker said in a previous statement. “It’s necessary to vote, open a bank account, rent an apartment, and obtain a credit card, among many other things. Our bill is a small but important step in helping ease the pathway to reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.