Juanita Belton is a co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, a group that believes people who have served lengthy sentences deserve a second chance.
For me, the issue is deeply personal. For 24 years, my best friend, Sincere Born Allah, has been serving a 45-year sentence in the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Sincere is one of the kindest people I know. But, at 19, he was convicted of murder, arson and use of a firearm. He has maintained his innocence regarding the murder and was pressured into a plea deal for fear of the death penalty. I wholeheartedly believe him.
Prison has taken a brutal toll on Sincere, as it does on so many others. Forced behind bars at such a crucial developmental age, he experienced depression, substance abuse, isolation, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.
Despite his circumstances, he was determined to make his life better, and he got to work. He now mentors fellow incarcerated people and facilitates prison programs, and he has created an initiative to teach interpersonal skills, leadership and goal-setting. He’s also on the path to becoming certified as a peer recovery specialist for people with substance use disorders and mental health issues.
Now 41, Sincere is fundamentally different from the young man I met. He wants to support his community and be of service to others. He also wants to spend time with his family, including the siblings he left behind and the niece and nephew who were born while he was incarcerated.
For Sincere to see the freedom that he desires, and that I believe he has earned, sentencing laws must change. Virginia has taken steps in the right direction. In addition to nixing the death penalty, the state recently legalized marijuana and abolished life without parole for juveniles.
Unfortunately, comprehensive reforms to reduce extreme sentences have largely stalled. For one, there are unfounded fears that people imprisoned for violent crimes will reoffend.
But those fears have been debunked by a mountain of research. State, national and international studies have consistently found that people released from prison after serving many years have extremely low rates of recidivism, including those convicted of violent offenses. Research also shows that people generally age out of crime once they reach adulthood. For some it takes longer, but releasing Sincere — and thousands of other people like him in prison — would not impede public safety.
Other anti-reform advocates argue that victims of crime deserve the peace of mind that comes from knowing that offenders are paying a long sentence for their crimes.
Trust me, I understand these sentiments. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence. But I have found healing from my family, my therapist and my community, not from long sentences.
Fortunately, policymakers nationwide are starting to recognize the need for change and are spearheading “second look” reforms. Such reforms enable courts to reconsider long sentences after people serve a predetermined amount of time and can show that they have transformed their life.
These initiatives are gaining momentum across the country. Legislators in 25 states have recently introduced second-look bills, according to a May report from the Sentencing Project. And more than 60 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders have called for second-look legislation. Now, it’s Virginia’s turn to adopt such reforms.
Virginia’s criminal justice system doesn’t follow the science about effective sentencing policy. People like Sincere, and those who love him, suffer the consequences. We need to give people a second look and a second chance.