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Push mounts to allow judges to modify long prison sentences

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Married couple Jolene and Bryon Russ have only experienced life together with one of them in maximum-security prison.

Jolene, 40, and Bryon Russ Sr., 47, have been together for nearly a decade and married in 2016, but have known each other throughout their lives.

The pair met in the late ’90s — two years before Bryon Russ was imprisoned for a series of armed robberies in Wayne and Ontario counties in the Finger Lakes. A man was shot during one of the incidents, but no one died.

Bryon Russ has served 23 years of a total 49-year sentence, or two determinate sentences of 24-and-a-half years each. He isn’t eligible for conditional release until 2034.

“Bryon was on a crash course for prison; anyone who knew Bryon in 2000 or much of his upbringing, they knew that his life was going to go in one of two ways: Prison or death,” Jolene Russ recalled of her husband’s childhood in poverty in Ontario County. “…With all that said, Bryon needed an adjustment and prison was an adjustment that was warranted. The crimes he committed … were serious. But Bryon’s transformation since being in prison is so profound.”

Bryon Russ was imprisoned at age 24. He’s incarcerated in Sing Sing prison in Ossining, and has also been held at Elmire, Clinton, Auburn and other correctional facilities around the state.

Jolene Russ is joining lawmakers pushing to pass the Second Look Act this session. It would allow a person in prison to apply for a resentencing hearing after they’ve served 10 years, or half their sentence if less than a decade. The case would be heard by a different judge than who did the initial sentencing.

“Only the judiciary can undo the judiciary,” said Assembly sponsor Latrice Walker, a Democrat from Brooklyn.

Jolene Russ says after 23 years behind bars, a judge needs to re-evaluate her husband’s case. The couple, who have five children between them, see each other a few times per month and speak on the phone several times per week for 15 minutes.

“He needed time and resources and opportunity, and prison gave him that. But New York doesn’t allow for any kind of second look after a person has transformed,” Russ said.

The Second Look Act would create a rebuttal presumption of release for people over the age of 55, or incarcerated people who were 25 years old or younger when they committed a crime. Judges would also be required to consider statements from impacted victims or victims’ family as part of a person’s request for a second look.

“The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York has long supported providing second chances and finding effective ways to keep individuals out of our correctional facilities,” J. Anthony Jordan, DAASNY president and Washington County district attorney said in a statement Tuesday. “We look forward to continuing those efforts and working with our Legislature and governor to find solutions to this challenge, but still recognize the harm caused to our communities and victims by violent individuals.”

The bill would bring changes to the criminal justice system Walker says would reverse mass incarceration in New York, and long sentences that disproportionately affect Black and brown people. About 75% of the incarcerated people who would be eligible for a resentencing hearing under the legislation are people of color, the assemblywoman said.

Black men receive prison sentences that are more than 19% longer on average than white male offenders in similar situations, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Walker lives and represents Brownsville, Brooklyn — one of the state’s most dangerous communities. She says lawmakers can strike a balance enacting criminal justice reforms and maintaining public safety, and that long prison sentences destabilize families and communities and are more harmful in the long run.

“These lengthy prison sentences have not been beneficial to us,” Walker said. “This type of a reform is something that is holistic because we are returning individuals back into the communities where they belong, where we would like for them to continue in the educational process, pursuit of education and contribute to the economy.”

The state Office of Court Administration says it could handle additional resentencing cases if this becomes law, even amid a huge backlog left from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While there would be operational consequences, the effect would be negligible, as cases, should they be remanded back for reconsideration, would be a fraction of filings in Supreme Court in New York City or County Court outside of New York City,” OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen said in a statement.

The OCA does not have a position on the proposed legislation.

“I don’t think we would be talking about a huge number of individuals when it was all said and done,” said Peter Pullano, a managing partner at Tully Rinckey in Rochester.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said senators continue to examine which pieces of the state’s criminal justice system need attention.

But senators have not discussed the measure as a conference, and likely won’t until after the state budget is finalized this spring. The budget deadlines April 1.

“We are looking to make sure that when you go through the criminal justice system, it’s a just system,” the Senate leader, a Democrat from Yonkers, said Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, the state Department of Correction and Community Supervision reports 31,600 people incarcerated in New York.

Of that, more than 6,000 people are serving a sentence that’s 15 years or more and 6,361 are serving a life sentence, according to DOCCS.

About 300 people in prison are serving life without parole.

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