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Opinion Thousands of incarcerated people deserve to come home. Here’s how prosecutors can help.

Sentenced in 2007 to 28 years in prison, Kennard "Isaiah" Love was resentenced and released after 13 years at San Quentin State Prison in 2020. (Charisse Domingo/Silicon Valley De-Bug)

Hillary Blout is a former prosecutor for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and founder of the nonprofit For The People, which works with prosecutors to remedy unjust sentences.

Just two days before Christmas last year, I stood at the gates of San Quentin State Prison waiting for Kennard “Isaiah” Love to emerge from a white van. Members of Love’s community, including his parents, stood next to me, eager to finally hug Isaiah for the first time in 13 years.

After being convicted of multiple robberies in 2007, Love was sentenced to 28 years in prison. During his time inside, he dove deep into his rehabilitation and earned multiple degrees. After seeing this, the elected district attorney decided that Love should be released — even though he had 15 years remaining on his sentence.

Love is one of more than 100 people to date who have been released through Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR), an innovation born in California. PIR allows prosecutors — whose role has traditionally been to put people in prison — to get people out when the sentence is no longer in the interest of justice.

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As a former prosecutor, I was shocked to learn that there was no law in the country allowing prosecutors to review old cases for possible release. As one of the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system with a duty to uphold justice and safety, I felt prosecutors should have the ability to take action if a person’s incarceration no longer advanced either value — so I conceptualized and helped pass the first PIR law in the country.

Almost one year after I stood outside the prison walls waiting for Love to return home, he is a computer programmer working at a tech company in his hometown, San Jose, and a pillar of the community. And he is not the only one: Alwin Smith, released this year, now interns at a church where he helps provide mobile showers for people who are homeless. Dean Thomas, released last year, is a mechanic who visits and feeds the same birds whose wings he used to mend in the prison yard.

There are thousands more people just like these men who are languishing in prison serving excessive, outdated sentences that would no longer be given today. At the same time, there are roughly 2,400 elected prosecutors across the country who, if given the right tools, could find people to be safely released and bring them back to their families.

Beyond California, For The People has supported the passage of three laws just like the original. Today, Illinois, Oregon and Washington state have all passed laws giving prosecutors the ability to revisit old cases — and more states, including New York, Minnesota and Massachusetts, are considering PIR bills.

As this movement spreads, many may wonder, “Is this safe?” The myth goes that long sentences are crucial to increasing public safety. But research has shown that the length of a sentence doesn’t actually have the effect of deterring more crime. Research also shows that people age out of crime, and that recidivism rates decline with age and are the lowest among people who have served the longest sentences for serious crimes.

The PIR process includes a meticulous review of an incarcerated person’s history, rehabilitation and in-prison behavior, as well as robust reentry planning. It also considers mitigating factors from the person’s childhood and develops safeguards for the future. This helps ensure that our communities will be protected and even benefit from the person’s return home.

Many people serving excessively long sentences can be safely released, with savings redirected back into the community to prevent incarceration in the first place and combat racial disparities. In California alone, it costs more than $100,000 to incarcerate one person per year. With excessive sentences reduced, imagine the funds that could be funneled into preventive measures such as drug treatment and mental health care.

If every elected prosecutor in California were to implement PIR in their county, and had enough resources to do so, as many as 26,000 people could be safely released. This means 26,000 families could be reunited — a fact made all the more significant as we gather with our loved ones over the holidays.

This new vision of justice can and should be spread across the country to encourage rehabilitation, help prosecutors resentence people who no longer need to be in prison and reunite more families, just like the family of “Isaiah” Love.

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