Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.
Law enforcement officials from Tallahassee and surrounding Leon County recently announced that they'll be the first Florida jurisdictions to adopt civil citations as an alternative to arresting adults for first offenses of nonviolent misdemeanors. Persons issued a citation will undergo an assessment, perform 25 hours of community service, attend treatment for issues that contributed to the offense, pay all program costs, and face arrest if they fail to comply with the conditions of any compulsory programs.
In 2009, Indiana set up a commission to evaluate the state’s criminal code, and three years later, that commission has proposed legislation that would make major changes to Indiana’s criminal laws. Among the changes recommended are: labeling low-level theft as a misdemeanor, rather than as a felony (currently, Indiana is the only state for which theft is a felony no matter how small the stolen item’s value); increasing the number of felony levels from four to six; lowering penalties for some drug offenses; and eliminating the “school zone” that enhances sentences for drug offenses. For more, you can read the commission’s July 2012 report on Indiana’s criminal code.
Massachusetts currently allows prosecutors to charge and sentence 17-year-olds as adults, but that might change soon. Partly spurred by a report issued recently by the state-appointed Child Advocate Gail Garinger, Massachusetts appears ready to raise the age of criminal jurisdiction to 18. In addition, the state must also conform to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and revoke mandatory life without parole for juveniles who commit murder.
Texas’ most populous county could make a major impact on the state’s jail population and address its own overcrowding issues by reforming its pretrial release policies. In December 2010, about half of the persons in Harris County jails were pretrial detainees, 20 percent of whom were charged with a misdemeanor offense or held for other non-felony reasons. The authors of the above-linked article identify a number of policy options that would reduce Houston’s pretrial detainee population, such as releasing more defendants on personal bond (i.e., their word). Travis County (Austin), Texas released almost 60 percent of defendants on personal bond in 2009, compared with just six percent in Harris County.
The United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission, an independent advisory body, recommended that Britain decriminalize the possession of small amounts of controlled drugs and concluded that the move would not lead to a significant increase in use. The panel of drug policy experts suggested that drug possession be punished by a fine or drug treatment rather than with criminal sanction. If implemented, the proposal would look like Portugal’s 2001 reforms, which were accompanied by a steep decline in serious drug addiction.