Newly Sworn-In LA D.A. George Gascón, Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby Discuss Plans to Tackle Mass Incarceration

By Roxanna Jarvis

NATIONAL – Maryland’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby and newly-sworn in Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón discussed, in an interview with social justice news-reporting organization The Appeal, the formation of sentencing review units (SRUs), the goal of which is to tackle mass incarceration and excessive prison sentencing in their respective cities.

The progressive “top cops” said SRUs in the prosecutors’ office would be tasked with reviewing cases of those incarcerated to determine if their sentences were too harsh and if the office supports their release. With the creation of such units, individuals like Calvin McNeill won’t have to spend the remainder of their lives in prison for a crime they committed as a child.

In 1981, when Calvin McNeill was 16 years old, he and a group of friends decided to rob a dice game in his Baltimore neighborhood. What was supposed to be a simple robbery turned violent, resulting in McNeill shooting and killing a man. McNeill was sentenced to life in prison for felony murder. For the next 39 years, McNeill would attempt to be given a second chance.

“All signs suggested that he was doing everything he could to prove himself worthy of a second chance,” explained Emily Galvan-Armanza, founder and co-executive director of Partners for Justice.

As host for the interview, Galvan-Armanza further explained that McNeill “championed” anti-violence work, went 25 years without a single infraction, and was commended by multiple prison staff. McNeill was someone who the prison parole board could see getting an early release.

Despite recommendations by the parole board for clemency, McNeill was denied release on three separate occasions by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

But last summer, Mosby’s office agreed to review McNeill’s case. On July 6, by a judge’s order, McNeill was freed after 39 years in prison.

On Monday, Mosby announced the creation of a new sentencing review unit in Baltimore, which would address mass incarceration and racial inequality in the criminal legal system. This would mean that more people facing the same situation as McNeill will be released from prison shortly.

Mosby discussed how cases like McNeill’s are just one of many.

“The irony of this all is that Mr. McNeill is just one of many stories of juvenile lifers and elderly people facing excessive sentences that have left them with the prospect of dying in the prison and never being able to be given that second chance to prove themselves as productive members of society,” she said.

Mosby explained how excessive sentencing is costly and doesn’t make communities safe—research shows that individuals age out of crime, and, most importantly, such sentencing is disproportionately imposed on Black people.

According to Mosby, Maryland is an outlier in the nation. “It’s crazy because African Americans make up only 30 percent of the state population, yet 70 percent of the prison population. [Of] those over [2,500] individuals given life [in Maryland], eight out of ten of those are Black people. And in the city of Baltimore, [it’s] 94 percent of those imposed.”

Mosby continued, “Prosecutors have historically contributed to the epidemic of mass incarceration and racial inequity. We also have a responsibility to end that, which is why I launched the sentencing review unit in my office.”

George Gascón—on the same day as Mosby’s announcement of her office’s SRU—was sworn in as Los Angeles’ new district attorney. At his swearing-in, Gascón announced that his office, too, will be creating an SRU.

Gascón hopes to release 20,000 or more incarcerated individuals with the unit in place. Gascón told Galvan-Armanza it is fortunate that California has had much recent criminal justice reform, as it serves as a vehicle to finding these 20,000 people to be released.

“It’s given us an opportunity, for people who have been given a base sentence of seven or 10 years and then an enhancement [that] stakes out to 30 or 40, to be able to say if they already completed their base sentence and if the corrections department believes that these are the people that are eligible to be released, then they can be released safely,” he said.

In addition to a sentencing review unit, Gascón declared an end to death penalty prosecutions, resentencing those on death row to life in prison, and end to charging juveniles as adults, and the elimination of all cash bail beginning Jan. 1.

Galvan-Armanza then touched on the fact that both Gascón and Mosby emphasized how being retroactive must “be done in concert with a different way of practicing as a prosecutor going forward.”

Gascón has already begun the action of not seeking death penalty sentences, as well as eliminating cash bail for any “misdemeanor, non-serious, non-violent offenses.”

For those currently sentenced to death row, on death row, or in adult court or adult prison as juveniles, Gascón noted that he and his office will have to “go to the court and take them out of that process.”

Mosby’s office has been able to reduce the jail population in Baltimore by 45 percent from last year. “Especially during COVID, being proactive and not allowing people to get into the system to prevent them from getting into the criminal justice system is incredibly important for prosecutors,” said Mosby.

“When it comes to prostitution, when it comes to drug possession, when it comes to disorderly conduct, we are not prosecuting these types of cases,” continued Mosby.

She added that, although the police commissioner has stated that they will continue to arrest, her office will continue to release those arrested without charges. Due to Mosby’s commitment to not press charges, the arrest rate has decreased by over 75 percent in Baltimore city.

While releasing these individuals may seem to decrease the level of safety in these cities, it’s quite the opposite.

“There is data and science to actually report that as [Mosby] talked earlier, the certainty of intervention, the quality of intervention, the rehabilitative steps we take is actually more likely to make us safer than just simply locking somebody up for a long period of time or quite frankly locking someone up at all,” explained Gascón.

Mosby noted keeping individuals in prison is very expensive for taxpayers, and that money could be put to other uses instead of funding someone who poses no threat to public safety to stay incarcerated. “It comes at a cost… According to The Sentencing Project, $1,000,000 per prisoner a year. It’s extremely cost exorbitant,” added Mosby.

Overall, these reforms and SRUs will save money and go toward creating communities focused on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

Gascón hopes to shift the idea of granting safety through “oppressive policing, incarceration and prosecution” to instead doing so with education, housing, and public health. “All the other verticals that are more likely to create a sustainable and healthier community.”

Both Gascón and Mosby join a larger group of progressive prosecutors throughout the country who have implemented sentencing review initiatives that aim to release those currently incarcerated who are low-risk to the rest of their communities.

“Many other cities understand and recognize that we have to release those individuals that pose no public safety risk. You look at Aisha Braveboy in the state of Maryland, you look at Dan Satterberg, Larry Krasner, Chesa Boudin’s office, Eric Gonzalez’s office and now George Gascón. This is what we’re attempting to do,” said Mosby.

Gascón ended the interview on a promising note for the future.

“We need to redefine the whole concept of how we get to community safety and take that away from the people that have profited from higher levels of incarceration—private prisons, prison guards, police unions—and really have a different conversation….certainly what [they] did before wasn’t working.

“We’re gonna have to work really hard to not only reshape the policy within our office and community, but really educate the public as well.”

Roxanna Jarvis is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley, currently majoring in political science with a minor in public policy. She is from Sacramento, California.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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