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Should Prisons be Closed?

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was closed in 1963 and is now a museum.

An 85-year-old convicted murderer has been released from prison 49 years after being convicted of gunning down a New Jersey state trooper, largely because the state Supreme Court decided he was no longer a threat to society.

Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther who was part of the ultranationalist Black Liberation Army, had been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He became eligible for release in 1993 because of good behavior, but the parole board previously denied his release four different times.

In a 3-to-2 ruling, the state Supreme Court cited the Parole Act of 1979, which says inmates shall be released when they are eligible, unless there is a preponderance of the evidence showing a substantial likelihood they will commit another crime.

The court said the parole board apparently ignored Acoli’s renunciation of violence, two decades of being infraction-free, completion of multiple vocational programs and counseling sessions and his advanced age. “It is difficult to imagine what else might have persuaded the Board that Acoli did not present a substantial likelihood to reoffend,” the majority wrote.

While New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and the law enforcement community staunchly opposed granting Acoli his freedom, the majority on the court decided there was no point in keeping him confined.

Acoli's supporters say he’s paid his debt to society and poses no public threat. He has early-stage dementia, was hospitalized last year with covid-19 and plans to live with his daughter in New York when he gets out of prison.

“It’s time now for Mr. Acoli to live the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community,” said civil rights attorney Soffiyah Elijah, one of Acoli’s primary advocates.

In a new episode of the Lean to the Left podcast, sentencing and prison reform advocate Nicole D. Porter contends that thousands of elderly inmates confined today should be similarly released, that they no longer pose a threat to society and that releasing them would help reduce prison overcrowding.

Her comments came in an interview for the Justice Counts podcast that I co-hosted with thriller author/attorney Mark M. Bello.

Porter manages The Sentencing Project’s state and local advocacy efforts on sentencing reform, voting rights, and confronting racial disparities in the criminal legal system.

Named a “New Civil Rights Leader” by Essence Magazine for her work challenging mass incarceration, Porter's advocacy and findings have supported criminal legal reforms in such states as Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, California, Texas, and the District of Columbia.

Porter’s areas of expertise include research and grassroots support around challenging racial disparities, felony disenfranchisement, in addition to prison closures and prison reuse. She is the former director of the Texas ACLU’s Prison & Jail Accountability Project,

Some episode highlights:

  • Porter calls for elimination of mandatory sentences for many crimes.

  • She urges decriminalizing most, if not all, illegal drug use.

  • She calls for reallocation of resources, including the closing of many prisons, with a focus on rehabilitation.

  • She contends that many older inmates are no longer dangerous, and thus, should be released.

  • Because thousands of inmates received unfairly harsh sentences because of mandatory sentencing requirements, and because deplorable prison conditions in many prisons violate inmates' rights, that "reparations" are justified. Those payments would be used, not for prisoners, but for community programs designed to reduce crime.

Take a listen.

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