Sentence Modification: A Step in the Right Direction

Peace! My name is Darius Simmons (B.K.A. 7). I am currently 15 years in on a 22 year sentence. This is the first (and last), time that I have ever been convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison time. I didn’t kill, injure, or harm anyone. However I was sentenced 12 years outside of the sentencing guidelines that only called for 9 years, 2 months as part of a plea agreement. This is higher than my co-defendants who all had prior felony convictions.

During my incarceration, I sought out every avenue available for relief, to no avail. I even petitioned Gov. Northam for a Conditional Pardon, only to be denied after waiting for an answer for 4 years.
You see, I never once denied my role in my case and took full responsibility for my actions, but the sentence was woefully disproportionate to the crime and the Court didn’t take into consideration the fact that I had no prior record, and I turned myself in!

The first few years was rough. I had to learn the law, then I fight my own case to the bitter end with no legal assistance. After I exhausted all of my remedies, I fell into a deep depression as it felt like I had life sentence! At only 24 years old, to be faced with 2 decades can seem impossible to do. I eventually lost hope, started getting into trouble, ran my security level up, and ended up doing 5 years at a Maximum Security prison. It was there, after being surrounded by guys who had triple digits and multiple life sentences, that I decided to accept my fate. However, I realized that this isn’t how I wanted to live my life. So to ensure that I don’t recidivate once I am released, I made the decision to utilize the rest of my time to equip myself with tools that I can use to be legitimately productive in society.

I obtained my G.E.D., I’ve taken numerous rehabilitative programs, I received several Trades, maintained employment tutoring in the G.E.D. class, and becoming Teacher’s Aids in the Trade courses that I completed! I eventually worked my way back down to Security level 2 facility and been at D.F.C.C. for the past 4 years. The sad part about it is, I still have 4 years left to do! Its clear to see that I’m not the same young 24 year old kid that made a few bad choices. I’m now a 39 year old man with a Fiancée and 2 teenage kids who need my presence now more than ever! I have an aging mother who’s health is declining and I fear that I won’t get to see her again as a free man. Not to mention all of the loved ones that I lost over the years that I will never get the chance to see again.

The Sentence Modification concept and bill, which has already been adopted in D.C. and Colorado, if passed, will be a step in the right direction towards fairness in the criminal justice system here in Virginia. This would be for myself and countless other men and women with lengthy sentences, who are not who they were and deserve a ‘Second Look.’

Also, for those who are just starting out on a long sentence, just knowing that such a policy exists, provides an incentive that will motivate a person to want to rehabilitate themselves, hold themselves accountable for their past mistakes or poor decisions, and take responsibility for their actions moving forward, in hopes to possibly return home to their families one day. In turn, this will generate a safer prison system and lower recidivism rates do to the incentivised behavior modification and rehabilitation.

Science shows that a person’s brain doesn’t reach full maturation until between 25-28 years of age. This means that although a person is an adult by societal standards, they are still incapable of making rational decisions or temper emotions in certain situations as a person in their mid 30’s and beyond. As a result, they make an ill advised decision that they end up regretting for the rest of their lives. Add to that, the fact that statistics show that most people ‘Age out’ of criminal behavior in their 30’s – thus proving that people do change!

Now the question is – do we continue to perpetually punish people for making bad choices at a time in their young life, with all the pressures surrounding most of them, based on their economic and societal circumstance? Or do we as humans have compassion and understanding that ‘people make mistakes and poor decisions.’ We all have at some point in time in our lives. Just some are a little more severe than others. And no matter how severe or not, we all want the same thing: To be forgiven!

Pertaining to the bill as it stands, I think that its too restrictive in regards to the behavioral stipulations for eligibility. Staying charge-free for five years is nearly impossible. In a prison with people warehoused in close quarters and everybody’s dealing with their own unfortunate situations. Whether it be the loss of loved ones, missing loved ones, or just not having any outside support at all. Plus tired from being down so long or just starting out, having a hard time adjusting and the end is no where in sight. Couple that with all the different personalities, makes for a very hostile environment where anything can happen. It doesn’t have to be you who initiates conflict or even be at fault. You just might have had to defend yourself and you still will receive an infraction which won’t reflect that you acted in self defense.
Or, a C.O could be having a bad day or issues at home that they bring in here with them and take it out on us. You could be on the receiving end of an infraction as collateral damage. Sounds strange, but it happens more often then you think. Maybe something as small as not having your shirt tucked in or not standing in time for count can effect your eligibility to petition. So five years infraction free is hardly an achievable feat. If passed as it stands, I myself wouldn’t be immediately eligible. I still would have 2 more years to go before I’m eligible.
So with a few amendments, I think this Bill can change the landscape of the justice system in Virginia and make it fair and just for all.

Darius Simmons, Deerfield Correctional Center

Definition of Second Chances

Thank you for allowing me to express my take on a piece of legislation that’s beyond what a person has done wrong in life, but how he or she responded to what they have done. “THAT’S MY DEFINITION OF SECOND CHANCES.”

As I sit back and reflect on how the United States has more people incarcerated than any other country, it leads many people to believe that incarceration is more about politics than the crime or the victims of those that committed those crimes. Since Jan. 1st of 1996, Virginia got tough on crime and came up with one solution, “85% and no parole.” So now I pose this question, is that the real solution? Of course not! That’s because most of the inmate population will be released one day, change or not!!!

It’s about time, it’s long overdue for us Virginians to put in place legislation that focuses on Second chances. Giving individuals the necessary tools to be able to tackle not only what led them to prison, but beyond prison is the REAL SOLUTION. So why not put in place a system that restores good health through therapy and allow the judicial system to evaluate a person after a period of time for an early release, because there are plenty of people in prison that are still being punished for who they used to be, rather than who they become. Enclosing, it’s not a matter of if this piece of Legislation is enough. It’s about getting back to what this country was built on, second chances!!!

Leroy Williams
Deerfield Correctional

Prompt: Introducing Second Look

Thousands of us in the prison system are serving lengthy sentences, some even without any hope of making it out of prison alive. Since 1995, several states, including Virginia, removed parole from their legal system, deepening the prison as a pit of despair. For the last 25 years, people (largely black and brown) have been unfairly profiled and incarcerated for sentences often doubling (or even tripling) the age when they received that sentence. Currently, there are over 53,000 people in America who are serving life without parole, and every 1 out of 4 are serving sentences of 15 years or more.

More locally, there is not much incentive to encourage a large portion of the population in here to seek better. Seriously, what is a 20-year old young man to think when he receives a 30 year sentence? Even with the updated good time bill, sentences of 30 years are more than likely not eligible for 65% (15 days of good time off your sentence for every 30 days time served).

So – what is a better motivating force for a young man who is now getting a good look down the dark tunnel he faces, if he continues with the pattern of choice he made to get locked up? I can tell you this, it’s NOT getting out when he’s 45 after serving a 25 and a half year bid (and that’s with no disciplinary infractions), a GED, and a trade certificate to go along with the permanent scar of ex-felony attached to his record!

The answer to many questions concerning rehabilitation, relief, and incentives thereof, is prospective legislation called Second Look.

‘Second Look’ is an additional route to a second chance, differentiating from parole, as it involves petitioning the court for a sentence modification. It proposes that after a defined period of time (like 10 years or so) served on an extensive sentence (I.e. 20 years or more), people behind bars can petition the court of the district they were sentenced in. There is even a chance that your sentence can be reduced down to time served. Now, this isn’t automatic. The draft propose that a board of more than the judge who sentenced you has a say in it. The prosecutor and prison staff might even be able to chime in on your potential time reduction. Ideally, you would be able to show rehabilitation, such as education, infraction-free, programs completed and trades obtained.

Second Look is already federal and versions of this legislation have been written, reviewed, and even passed in several states, most recently Texas. Now, in 2021, advocate groups are pushing to make it a reality in Virginia. It goes without saying, that such a law isn’t going to pass without a fight.

Prompt: After reading the topic above, write an essay (at least two paragraphs in length, if you can, please). answering some, one, or all of the questions below.

Are there any problems you can foresee with legislation like Second Look?

Do you have any ideas to improve this proposal? if so, what are they?

If this became law, how would this effect you? How would it affect the system?

What are some of the pros and cons you see with Second Look versus parole?

-Q. Patterson