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Statewide rallies support 3 new criminal justice reform bills

Criminal Justice reformers gather outside the Holding Center to tout three new reform bills
Thomas O'Neil-White
Criminal Justice reformers gather outside the Erie County Holding Center to tout three new reform bills Nov. 17, 2021.

Over a dozen criminal justice reform advocates stood outside the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo Wednesday afternoon as a part of a statewide campaign introducing three new bills targeting generations-old sentencing laws they say are racist, costly and perpetuate mass incarceration.

The first of these bills seeks to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences which proponents say drives up incarceration rates and gives prosecutors outsized power in seeking guilty pleas.

Standing outside the Holding Center, formerly incarcerated person Willie Sutherland said he was a victim of the mandatory minimum sentencing law.

Willie Sutherland talks about his experience being incarcerated
Thomas O'Neil-White
Willie Sutherland talks about his experience being incarcerated outside the Erie County Holding Center Nov. 17, 2021.

“I spent 21 years in the state system,” he said. "One year [at the Holding Center] and 20 throughout the forensic system for a crime that I didn't commit but I was coerced into taking a plea, a plea that should have gotten me six months and 21 years later I was lucky to be released.”

The Second Look Act gives judges the ability to review and reconsider excessive sentences. Currently state law prevents the incarcerated from demonstrating to a judge that they have been rehabilitated. The bill would allow incarcerated people to apply for a resentencing hearing after serving 10 years or half of their sentence.

The Earned Time Act bolsters good time or merit time laws which would reduce the sentence based on good behavior.

Prison reformist Jerome Wright said these bills not work towards reforming and keeping people out of prison, they also save the state money.

“Somebody said $70,000,” he said. "For most people in prison that number is higher than that because as they age their medical conditions cause them to pay so we're talking paying over $100,000 a year per person.”

Each bill has enough legislator support for primary sponsorship and they will be brought to the floor of the state legislature before the start of the 2022 legislative session.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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