Opinion: Rehabilitated violent offenders deserve a second chance

As seen in the Virginian Pilot and Daily Press, written by Paulettra James.

For years, I have been separated from the love of my life — my husband, Jerry James. Why? Because of Virginia’s incredibly outdated, harmful, and punishment-focused legal model.

Despite overwhelming evidence that lengthy sentences are unnecessary to protect public safety, Virginia doles out some of the most extreme punishments in the nation — and leaves incarcerated people with virtually no hope of a second chance.

Jerry, who has turned his life around, is just one of thousands of people trapped in this broken system. He has been in the Virginia Department of Corrections for 21 years. And it all started because he wanted to kill himself. Here’s his story.

Jerry was living a relatively ordinary life. But then things turned. He got into a serious romantic relationship, and his partner became relentlessly abusive. Jerry felt like he couldn’t get out. He suffered serious mental anguish and turned to drugs and alcohol. He then attempted to take his own life. He conceived of a plan to rob a bank with the hope that police would kill him when they responded. He wanted to end his life to end his troubles.

In 2000, Jerry was sentenced to serve 38 years behind bars for robbery and use of firearms in commission of a felony. His weapon was an unloaded BB gun; he had no intention of hurting anyone. He just didn’t want to live.

In prison, Jerry transformed. He turned to faith to guide his path forward. He completed his GED and graduated valedictorian. He earned certificates in anger management, janitorial services and more, and is on the path to getting an associate degree. He has also worked for the warden and front offices for the past three years — an incredible mark of trust from prison leadership.

This dedication and commitment are precisely why I fell in love with Jerry and married him four years ago. Upon meeting him, I found his faith and kindness moving, and our shared faith bonded us. His heart suited mine perfectly.

Now a matured 49-year-old, Jerry hopes to live outside prison and build our life together. He wants to use the associate degree he’s getting in biblical studies and ministerial counseling to help other young men who could easily fall prey to the criminal justice system.

But Virginia’s legal system has virtually no way for people who deserve a second chance to get one.

For example, Virginia has strict mandatory minimum policies — meaning people are required to serve often lengthy preset terms, regardless of individual circumstances. A recent bill to end all mandatory minimums gained traction earlier this year, but lawmakers couldn’t get it done.

Other legislation has been introduced to increase time off for good behavior, but lawmakers excluded any individuals with violent offenses. That’s despite plenty of research showing that people who served decades in prison for violent crimes rarely reoffend upon release. People simply age out of crime.

The vast majority of people serving extreme sentences want to spend time with their families, work hard, and contribute to their communities. I’m praying that policymakers will provide people serving extreme sentences with a “second look,” or a chance to have their sentences re-evaluated if they can show they have transformed.

Efforts to give people a second chance don’t amount to a “get out of jail free” card. They simply offer people such as Jerry an opportunity to petition the courts for release. The judge can then evaluate the person as they are today, not as they were in the past.

Warehousing individuals for decades does not ensure public safety, but it does breed hopelessness and heartbreak. We need lawmakers to give people like Jerry a second chance.

Paulettra James of Woodbridge is a co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, a group that believes people who have served lengthy sentences deserve a second chance.

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