NJ Grandpa May Die In Jail; Here's Sen. Booker's Plan To Free Him

NEWARK, NJ — It’s a chance to save U.S. taxpayers up to $16 billion a year. But according to Sen. Cory Booker, the Second Look Act is also an opportunity to give hundreds of thousands of people in prison something they desperately need… hope.

On Monday, Booker – the former mayor of Newark who represents New Jersey in the U.S. Senate – announced that he and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California are introducing a bill that would give a “second look” to the sentences of inmates across the nation.

Here’s what the bill would do if it becomes law, according to Booker:

According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 82,000 people currently in federal prison have sentences longer than 10 years.

The bill would also potentially impact about 250,000 inmates aged 50 and above, whose imprisonment costs U.S. taxpayers about $16 billion annually, Booker stated.

For people like William Underwood, a 65-year-old Tenafly resident serving life without parole in New Jersey, the Second Look Act could mean the difference between dying in jail and greeting his family as a free man.

According to Booker, Underwood – a father of four and grandfather of three – was convicted for a nonviolent drug crime he committed in 1988. He’s since served more than 30 years behind bars, becoming a “model prisoner” with a pristine record.

If convicted under the existing federal sentencing policies, Underwood would likely be at home with his family right now. But instead, he’s a constant reminder of just how unfair the criminal justice system can be, Booker said.

If it becomes law, the Second Look bill could be a candle that leads people like her father out of the darkness, said William Underwood’s daughter, Ebony Underwood.

“For 30 years, my siblings and I have held onto hope for our dad’s freedom when freedom was never an option, but rather a hopeless dream,” Underwood said. “This hope, instituted by our father, wasn’t always vocalized, but rather expressed constantly through his actions despite prison walls.”

Underwood said it isn’t only prisoners who suffer because of unfair laws; it’s their families, too.

“[The Second Look bill] gives a second opportunity to not only the incarcerated individual, but provides a second opportunity for their children and families to restore, repair, and renew those broken bonds that have been severely severed by such harsh, cruel, and unusual punishment, such as life without parole,” Underwood stated.

An online petition in favor of releasing Underwood has gained more than 80,000 signatures.

As part of the petition, Ebony Underwood offers the following details about her father’s arrest and imprisonment:

“My Dad’s name is William Underwood. He is a devoted father of four and a grandfather of three and a former music industry executive who promoted, managed and jumpstarted the careers of top R&B and pop stars of the 80s and 90s.

“But he wasn’t perfect and made mistakes by selling drugs before his music career. What originally was a way out of poverty when he was a teenager, and for so many others, eventually became a one-way ticket to prison. Prosecutors, hoping to get a lengthy sentence under the 1980’s War on Drugs, painted him as being a part of a narcotics enterprise. Prior to his arrest, he had never been convicted of a felony.

“Although he once was a part of the negativities of drug street life culture, he had positioned himself legitimately in the music industry as a highly regarded manager, publisher and advisor who was in constant demand by artists and labels requesting his work. Indeed, his involvement in criminal activity had ended years before his arrest, as evidenced by the fact that the FBI closed his case ‘due to lack of activity.’ However, 2 ½ years later, in 1988, he was arrested and charged with a continuing leadership role in a narcotics conspiracy, despite being engaged in a full-time career in the music industry. In 1990, as part of the first round of drug convictions made under the newly enacted federal Sentencing Guidelines of 1987 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, he received three mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years on drug conspiracy charges plus, life without the possibility of parole. This was my dad’s first and only felony conviction. The life without parole sentence was the result of a decision by the judge, not a jury.”

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“Our bill targets a harsh reality,” Booker said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people behind bars – most of them people of color – who were sentenced under draconian laws during the height of the War on Drugs that we have since recognized were unfair.”

“Our bill recognizes this unfairness and gives people who have served their time a ‘second look,'” Booker said.

Rep. Bass concurred that the bill is a way to counteract unfair sentences doled out during the War on Drugs and the “over-criminalization” of narcotics that took place in the 1980s.

“Unjustifiably long prison sentences aren’t just immoral, but also a waste of valuable federal resources,” Bass said.

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, also lent support to the Second Look Act, writing that long prison sentences – especially life in jail – tend to incarcerate people into old age, long after the likelihood of criminal activity has passed.

“Further, they add little deterrent effect on crime since deterrence is a function of the certainty of punishment, not its severity,” Mauer said.

The Second Look Act is one of several recent criminal justice reform laws proposed by Booker, who said his efforts have been partly inspired by his experience living and working in Newark.

One of those pieces of legislation – the First Step Act – gained an unexpected supporter last year in President Donald Trump, who said “the whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”

Mathew Charles, the first person released from federal custody under the First Step Act, has continued to fight for prisoner rights since returning home. He lent support to the Second Look bill on Monday.

“People can and do change,” Charles attested. “I have friends who are still incarcerated who are not the same people they were when they entered prison. This bill will make sure that people who have made significant strides towards rehabilitation in prison have an opportunity to return to society.”

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