By Christina Carrega, CNN
Zerious Meadows was 16 when a Michigan judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole for participating in a felony murder. Now, at 67, Meadows is free.
During 20 of the 47 years Meadows was in prison, he said, he earned an associate degree in business accounting and participated in several programs. “I was doing everything I needed to do to stay out of trouble” even though a life sentence gave him zero chance of getting out, he told CNN on Monday.
Meadows’ release in 2016 wasn’t because of a third trial that exonerated him. He was released after the US Supreme Court ruled that juveniles sentenced to life without parole must be resentenced. After a judge resentenced Meadows to 25 to 45 years in prison, he had to wait another year while prosecutors appealed before he was sent home to his surviving relatives.
A new report released by The Sentencing Project on Wednesday shows, in part, that serving multiple decades behind bars is not an effective deterrent to decrease violent crimes and that recidivism rates among individuals who were convicted of violent crime such as homicide were less likely to get rearrested for the same offense. The Sentencing Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to research and advocacy to reduce mass incarceration.
And although the report’s findings aren’t necessarily new, its release comes as more Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree criminal justice reform is a top priority. Federal and state jurisdictions are working to undo the damage of mass incarceration that stemmed from the stiff war on drugs.
During a Senate hearing earlier this month, advocates suggested 10 years is enough time in prison to re-examine an individual’s growth and rehabilitation, and a coalition of law enforcement officials co-signed a joint statement in April calling on policymakers and prosecutors across the country to create sentencing review mechanisms.
Kara Gotsch, deputy director at The Sentencing Project, told CNN on Tuesday that, “we’re trying to add fuel to the momentum around second-look proposals that are popping up across the country … to get the false narrative that politicians have convinced themselves — and quite frankly, media has traditionally perpetuated this, too — that is, people who commit violet crime will come out and commit violent crime again, and that’s just not true. … Policymaking needs to be rooted in research and evidence, not, not anecdotes and fearmongering.”
When policymakers or the public hear about recidivism rates for ex-convicts, it carries different interpretations without examination. Recidivism can be referred to as a new arrest, reconviction or return to prison either for a parole violation such as missing curfew or a new crime conviction.
“Some of the reluctance to release people with violent convictions originates from a misunderstanding promulgated by media sensationalism of select crimes, that all persons released from prison run the same risk of committing a new crime. Related to this is the assumption that crime rises are caused by people who have been released from prison. Neither is empirically supported,” according to the report titled “A New Lease on Life.”
The authors of the 26-page report, Sentencing Project senior research analyst Ashley Nellis and communications associate Breanna Bishop, created “five recommendations that, if adopted, will advance our criminal legal system toward one that is fair, efficient, and humane,” according to the report.
The recommendations include standardizing definitions of recidivism to “not carelessly interpret findings on re-offending statistics without digging into either the meaning or the accuracy of the statements;” improving housing support, because “the most vulnerable people will fall through the cracks;” and changing the way those who decide to release individuals make their decisions, by examining the present person and not their conviction.
“Do I believe people can change? The simple answer is yes,” Michael Mendoza said.
Three days after Mendoza turned 15 in 1996, he was charged as an adult in California for being in the backseat of a car when another passenger, a fellow gang member, murdered an assumed rival. As a first-time offender, Mendoza was sentenced to 15 years to life under the state’s enhanced gang laws and sent to an adult prison on his 17th birthday.
Mendoza, now 39, said that during the first 10 years in prison, he was in survival mode. “I was angry, I needed to protect myself versus focusing on rehabilitation. … Change didn’t come overnight,” Mendoza, who is the national advocacy director at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, where he is responsible for expanding the organization’s policy priorities, said.
“What made me change was that I never wanted to hurt a family like that again. I heard stories through the victim services programs in prison and it really woke me up to see the impact of the decision I made and being exposed to that,” Mendoza said, adding, “It was remorse, policy changing and believing in God that changed me.”
Nearly 15 years into Mendoza’s sentence, he went before a parole board and after a four-hour interview, he was denied. Four years later and after former California Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill that calls to review sentences given to juveniles who were tried as adults passed, he was granted parole and released six months later, in June 2014.
Statistics on re-offenders
In its report, which includes features about formerly incarcerated lifers such as Meadows and Mendoza, the Sentencing Project’s researchers concluded other countries have far less punitive sentences than the United States. The report also concluded that in most international studies of recidivism, people convicted of murder or other violence re-offended less than 10% of the time.
The report also cited research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics — the statistics agency for the US Justice Department — that tracked the arrests of more than 400,000 people exiting prison in 2005 across 30 states. They found 20% of all individuals released from prison were arrested for a new violent offense within three years.
“The majority of these were for assault, 1% included a homicide, and 2% included a sexual assault/rape. Among those who had initially been convicted of a homicide, 2% committed a subsequent homicide,” according to the BJS research.
Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit advocacy and research organization focusing on criminal justice reform, said the report is “absolutely right” about very low recidivism rates for those convicted of violent offenses.
“These are the kind of statistics that make it even more heinous that, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, state prisons have released almost no one,” Bertram told CNN. “During this pandemic, many states have refused to consider anyone for release who may pose a political risk, and people with the ‘violent’ label next to their name are the first to be automatically excluded. It’s unfair to exclude someone from the mere possibility of being released based only on a label that obscures all the details of a case.”
A ‘vigorous process’ to get out of prison
Mendoza said that when you must earn your way back home, it takes more than just convincing a parole board to see the outside of prison walls. He said that after going through it all, it would not make sense to get caught up in the criminal justice system again.
“You have to go through a vigorous process,” Mendoza said. “I truly had to dig deep internally and emotionally and mentally to figure myself out … to do a lot of the internal thinking and self-reflection to figure out how to change and mature from that situation, and take advantage of whatever resources are available in prison to prepare for that eventual date of release.”
For Meadows, who was denied parole six or seven times before his sentence was reduced, he said he is not bitter or angry, even though he stands firm that he is an innocent man.
“I’m on Social Security now. It would be hard for me to get a job because of my age and the people I raised up with. They are all gone and the ones who are still here are on their last leg,” Meadows said, adding he is imprisoned with the memories of violence he saw as each decade passed by.
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CNN’s Joe Beare contributed to this report.