In prison, Dean Thomas became a different man. He was correctly diagnosed for his mental illness and began treatment and medications. He stopped using drugs. He participated in programs meant to increase compassion, earning the nickname “the Birdman” for rescuing birds caught in the prison’s barbed-wire fence. In 2020, after he served 18 years in prison for first-degree residential burglary—and with 50 years to life remaining on his sentence—he was released.
He wasn’t up for parole; he got that second chance thanks to a law called Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing. Spearheaded by former prosecutor Hillary Blout and passed in California in 2018, the law rectifies too-harsh prison sentences by giving prosecutors—those who charge and convict—the power to ask the court to resentence and release someone. It’s not just a reform movement; it’s part of the job, she says. “If [a prosecutor] sought a sentence at a certain time, they have to ensure that sentence is still just years later.” Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing is the winner of the social justice category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.
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Blout’s nonprofit, For The People, works with prosecutors to identify those who have been incarcerated for about 10 years and who have shown a change, such as getting sober or seeking anger-management help. Thomas is one of more than 100 people released under the law in California. For The People is now working with other states; Oregon and Illinois have passed their own versions. “We’re hoping this is something that will become part of the fabric of the way that the justice system operates,” Blout says.