A new bill heading to the house floor this week encourages judges to consider giving federal prisoners a second look at their cases, potentially impacting thousands of incarcerated people who were imprisoned as a result of the war on drugs.
The legislation, titled the Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act allows these prisoners to petition judges for a reduced sentence or release after they’ve served ten years in prison. It also gives special consideration to elderly prisoners who are aged 50 years or older, requiring the government to make a case as to why they should stay behind bars.
The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Karen Bass, announced the news today, noting that the bill is meant to provide relief to people who were incarcerated as casualties of the failed war on drugs.
“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,” Booker said in a statement.
“Second Look” is named after Mathew Charles, who’d served 20 years behind bars for selling drugs, was freed and turned his life around, but then sent back to prison on a technicality. Charles would be the first individual released from prison under the First Step Act, reform bill.
It is also named for William Underwood, a 65-year-old former music manager who was given life without parole as a first time drug offender, and has been locked up for more than 30 years.
Underwood was denied clemency under the Obama Administration’s massive criminal justice reform efforts.
The campaign to free Underwood has only grown stronger over the years, with rapper Nas even calling for his release on the new DJ Khaled song, “Won’t Take My Soul.”
“With all this criminal justice reform that’s been happening, most of it does not apply to someone who’s an elder like my father, who is incarcerated as part of the first round of convictions made during the War on Drugs,” says Underwood’s daughter, Ebony Underwood in an interview with theGrio.
“After my father had been incarcerated for 20 years, my siblings and I were burnt out. It just felt hopeless,” says Underwood, who says her father missed out on all her graduations, the birth of her son and the death of his mother.
“We’re paying billions of dollars to basically keep people disconnected from their families when they could totally be here with families that are here to support them,” she continued.
The bill’s sponsors estimated that 250,000 people over the age of 50 are incarcerated and it costs taxpayers approximately $16 billion dollars a year to keep them locked up.
“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,” said Bass.
Underwood tells theGrio that ultimately, her father and others like him, demonstrate the brokenness of the system:
“If we’re a system of corrections, at what point are we correcting if we’re keeping people incarcerated for life without the opportunity of parole?”