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To the Editor:

Re “Rethinking Extreme Sentences” (Op-Ed, Aug. 2):

James Forman Jr. and Sarah Lustbader rightly laud the movement to create sentencing review units in prosecutors’ offices. Beyond reviewing sentences that no longer comport with modern standards of proportionality, such units can and should include backward-looking relief, like sealing and expungement of cases that are either no longer criminal or for which justice otherwise warrants.

It would be a mistake, though, for such units to serve a review function alone. There is opportunity for the justice system to learn from excessive sentences.

A prosecutor who discovers an excessive sentence can trigger that learning. The practice of sentinel event review, in which stakeholders come together to study a given catastrophe, enables airlines to assess the variables that led to a plane crash or doctors to assess the errors that led to an avoidable patient death. System weaknesses can then be repaired to guard against future tragedies.

When prosecutors begin to exercise mercy through clemency or commutations, they must also look back at the confluence of circumstances and decisions that led to the first unjust sentence. Without sentinel event review, sentencing review units will not save us from repeating our regrettable past.

Lucy Lang
James Doyle
Ms. Lang is executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Mr. Doyle is a defense lawyer.