A good year for second chances - and lost causes

Jeff Gerritt

Nearly four decades have passed since Darrell Siggers basted a turkey on Christmas Eve. The 54-year-old Detroiter was released from prison in August, after serving 34 years for a murder he didn't commit.

“I'm having blast,” he told me Monday. “I'm not bitter. All I feel is gratitude.”

Last month, Siggers spoke to the Michigan State Legislature in support of creating a Forensic Science Commission. He received a standing ovation from the same legislature that, 30 years ago, enacted some of the nation's most draconian sentencing laws.

Siggers is one of three Michigan prisoners I championed, starting in 2000, as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He and two other prisoners – Darryl Jamual Woods, 45, and Henry Hill Jr., 55, – were finally freed this year, after spending a combined total of nearly 100 years in prison.

All in all, 2018 was a good year for causes I thought I had lost – and for long overdue prison reforms that helped make them possible.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill, after the First Step Act received overwhelming bi-partisan support in the U.S. House and Senate.

What a difference.

When I started advocating for prison reform 25 years ago, the country was caught up in the hysteria of trying to solve every problem by locking people up. From 1990 to 2010, for example, Texas' prison population more than tripled – from 50,000 to 173,000.

Harsh sentencing policies, especially for drug offenses, quadrupled the nation's prison population, putting more than 2 million people behind bars, while crime rates stayed the same.

Few people – and none in Congress or the White House – talked about reversing policies that made the United States the world's leading jailer, with 5 percent of the planet's population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

Now, as President Trump noted last week, practically everyone is talking about it: Fiscal conservatives opposed to spending nearly $100 billion a year on incarceration, the faith-based community who consider criminal justice reforms a moral imperative, libertarians against criminalizing drug addiction, and the nearly 50 percent of U.S. adults who have seen a family member sent to prison or jail.

Even some prosecutors are coming around, supporting Conviction Integrity Units to take a second look at shaky convictions. Such a unit, formed this year in Detroit's Wayne County, vacated Siggers' life sentence, after investigators found flawed witness testimony and a botched ballistics report.

Other prisoners, while not innocent, received disproportionate sentences that, in effect, denied their ability to change. More reasonable and flexible parole policies can right some of those wrongs.

Last week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder commuted Woods' life sentence, after Woods spent decades in prison for aiding and abetting a drug deal that resulted in a young man's death.

Woods used his years in prison to repay his debt to his community. In 2008, Woods founded the Youth Deterrent Program at Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit, a crime prevention program that works with troubled youth. The program has received national attention and accolades.

Woods will go home in a month. He plans to continue his life-saving mission, working for a non-profit agency in Detroit.

Hill, another prisoner I chronicled, received a life sentence at 16, under Michigan's notorious Juvenile Lifer Law. He was running from a gun fight when his cousin shot and killed an 18-year old. Hill didn't shoot or kill anyone. Still, because he was involved in a crime that led to a murder, he was given a mandatory life sentence when he was too young to legally smoke.

In prison, Hill became the lead defendant in a class-action lawsuit against the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared Michigan's Juvenile Lifer Law unconstitutional. Hill was paroled, after serving 37 years in prison, where he educated himself and mentored young offenders.

Today, Hill is married and working 60 hours a week – 40 at a sugar beets factory and 20 doing janitorial work at a local mall. He's paying taxes, instead of costing taxpayers $30,000 a year in prison.

I applaud Trump for making criminal justice reforms a priority in 2018, but the job is far from finished. State and federal prisons need new sentencing and parole policies, restored good-time credits, more money for prisoner re-entry, peer mentoring initiatives, and additional programs for addiction and mental health.

In 2019, we will all be better off, if many others like Siggers, Hill, and Woods get a second chance, too.

Jeff Gerritt is editor of the Palestine, Texas, Herald-Press. He is a former columnist and editorial writer for the Detroit Free Press.