The story of Gwen Levi: Non-violent elderly prisoners should not be the focus of our criminal justice system

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Congressman Kweisi Mfume (Courtesy Photo)

By Congressman Kweisi Mfume
Special to the AFRO

How Did We Get to This Place?—Too often we are forced to ask ourselves this question of the criminal justice system. Consider the recent case of Ms. Gwen Levi.

As you may recall, Gwen Levi is a 76-year-old grandmother who lives in Baltimore. Last summer, in the 17th year of her 24-year prison sentence, Ms. Levi, a cancer survivor, was given permission to serve her sentence on home confinement as part of the Congressional effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus in federal prisons. At home with her 94-year-old mother, Ms. Levi was able to strengthen her relationships with her children and grandchildren and volunteer at prisoner advocacy organizations. According to all reports, she was thriving.

This June, however, Ms. Levi was sent back to a jail cell. For what? For being out of touch with officials for 2 hours, 26 minutes because she was attending a word-processing class in the basement of an Inner Harbor building with bad reception. It was a routine computer class that Ms. Levi hoped would help her find a job and become a “more productive member of society,” the very thing we seek for ourselves and others. 

While Ms. Levi was in jail, I wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on her behalf, advocates and federal public defenders worked hard to get her out, and the news media brought national attention to her case. Fortunately, after several weeks, a federal judge granted Ms. Levi compassionate release, opining that “it would do little (if anything) to serve the goals of sentencing to require [Ms. Levi] to return to full custody”. 

The case of Gwen Levi is, quite frankly, an outrage on many levels. Of course, there is the obvious outrage of Ms. Levi being sent to jail for attending a computer class. But there is also the less obvious outrage of Ms. Levi, a non-violent offender, being in prison at the age of 76—16 years into a 24-year sentence—in the first place. How does that “serve the goals of sentencing”?

There are many Ms. Levis in our criminal justice system—elderly non-violent offenders who have served at least a decade and who pose no threat to others. Their cases don’t attract national media attention and don’t provoke widespread outrage, but their cases are often no less outrageous. 

Why should elderly, non-violent offenders who have served at least a decade remain in prison? Many times, they pose no threat to others and have already faced severe consequences for their actions. Quite simply, who would have benefited if Ms. Levi had remained in prison for the final eight years of her sentence and how

Some might say that rules are rules. While I understand and share this perspective with respect to violent criminals who terrorize our communities, we must never cease from asking ourselves whether our rules are good ones. We can ask ourselves whether these regulations make sense practically—keeping prisoners like Ms. Levi in prison as opposed to home confinement costs taxpayers over $20 thousand extra annually per prisoner.  But more importantly, we can ask ourselves whether these restrictions make sense morally and whether they are an expression of our values and ideals and whether they reflect the sort of country to which we aspire. Are these rules humane, compassionate, and just?

We can also ask what our rules do to us. It is my belief that keeping non-violent grandparents from seeing their grandchildren and keeping grandchildren from experiencing the love of their grandparents can make us more callous. We do damage to ourselves when we keep human beings like Ms. Levi locked up behind bars for the golden years of their lives. Let’s spend more time punishing those who deserve to be punished for their violence in our communities, and less time punishing those who are clearly on the straight and narrow.

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