Cory Booker aims to give aging prisoners 'a second look'

Image: Cory Booker
Cory Booker speaks to a crowd at the African American Leadership Council on June 6, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Copyright Dustin Chambers Getty Images file
By Leigh Ann Caldwell with NBC News Politics
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The Democratic presidential candidate is unveiling new legislation to take prison reform another step forward.


WASHINGTON - New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is unveiling new legislation that would give more federal prisoners the chance at early release, building on perviously passed criminal justice reform that some supporters say didn't go far enough.

The First Step Act, passed in 2018, was a rare bipartisan feat in Congress, bringing some of the most liberal and conservative lawmakers together with President Donald Trump to enact the biggest reforms to the criminal justice system since the tough-on-crime laws of the 1980s and 1990s. While the new law led to the release of thousands of federal inmates, thousands more were ineligible.

William Underwood, 65 years years old, is one inmate who wasn't eligible for release under the First Step Act. He has been in federal prison for 30 years, convicted of conspiracy, racketeering and non-violent drug-related crimes. Although it was his first felony conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole under mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Booker, who first met Underwood in 2016, says he's a prime example of the kind prisoner who should be eligible for release. He points to Underwood's age, the time he's already served and his record of good behavior as as reasons why more reforms are needed, noting that even the prison guards have said Underwood doesn't belong there.

Booker's legislation would address people like Underwood. The Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act, named after Underwood and Charles, the first person released because of the First Step Act, would give those serving long sentences a second chance.

The bill would also give people who have served more than ten years an opportunity to petition the court for release. And for prisoners over the age of 50, they would be offered the presumption of release, which means the the judge would have to show that the inmate should remain behind bars because they are a threat to society.

The measure likely faces an uphill battle in part because it would shift the burden onto the judicial system to make the case that a prisoner should remain locked up.

Another component that is expected to be controversial is that there is no exclusions for certain crimes. (The type of crimes included in the First Step Act encompassed low-level, non-violent crimes.) Booker's office argues that it would be much tougher for someone convicted of a violent crime to be released because a court must find that the inmate is not a risk and the inmate must show readiness to re-enter society.

Booker's proposed reforms attempt to address an aging prison population. The number of prisoners over the age of 55 has increased 280 percent since 1999, according to Pew, in large part because of tough sentencing laws that put people behind bars for decades. Elderly inmates now make up 11 percent of the prison population.

But the recidivism rate drops dramatically as people age. People under the age of 21 have a 68 percent re-arrest rate, compared to just 13 percent for those over 65, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

"I hope that this creates a much bigger pathway for people to be released, to save taxpayer dollars, to reunite families," Booker said. "This system of mass incarceration that now has more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in 1850 is an unjust system, and I intend to do everything I can to tear down the system of mass incarceration."

Booker was instrumental in the passage of the First Step Act, which had the support of President Donald Trump under the direction of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Kim Kardashian.

As a presidential candidate he's running against a number of candidates introducing plans revolving around criminal justice and his bill is a direct response to frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who was critical to the passage of the tough-on-crime bills of the 80s and 90s. Biden is expected to unveil a criminal justice reform plan in the coming weeks, which is expected to include a prohibition on mandatory minimum sentences.

For his part, Underwood says he's kept his focus on being a father and grandfather to his four children and three grandchildren.

"The children first. First and foremost. So, that's what I tried to emulate, you know, the best I could," Underwood, a former music promoter, said. "Well, you know, who knew this was gonna happen? I didn't. I can't foresee or foretell the future. You know, so, far as my children, you know, they have been a constant in my life."

And his family is also fighting for him. His daughter, Ebony, has become a criminal justice activist and been fighting for his release. She said that she became hopeful when President Barack Obama worked on criminal justice reform but was disappointed when the Obama administration declined to offer her father clemency, offering no explanation.

Abut after the passage of the First Step Act and the possibility of potential updates to the legislation, Ebony feels much more hopeful.

"I'm hoping and praying that this is finally it for us," she said. "We too have been incarcerated, it feels like, for last 30 years."

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