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.
Previous posts have surveyed the many reform bills in play across the states. This week, we’ll take a more detailed look at a recently passed reform bill, West Virginia’s SB 371. The bill, which was passed by both legislative chambers, grew out of the recommendations made by a task force of public officials that worked with the Council of State Governments last fall to address the state’s prison and jail overcrowding problem.
The state’s jails and prisons have been overcrowded for well over a decade, made worse by the state’s growing prison population. Basically, state prisoners are being held in county and regional jails because the prisons are full. But jails, which are designed to hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences, offer a much more limited range of rehabilitative programs than prisons do. In the late 1990s, a state prisoner serving time in a regional jail sued to be transferred to state prison, where he would have access to more programming and services. The State Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and has placed pressure on the executive and legislative branches to rectify the situation.
Despite a number of studies and recommendations in recent years, no action was taken to address the problem. Last year, a promising bill was killed in anticipation of this most recent study. The bill, SB 371, would allow judges to decide if some prisoners could be released early, increases post-release supervision, could reduce revocations for parole and probation violations, and may divert some defendants to substance abuse treatment rather than prison.
The bill is a step in the right direction, but proponents expect the bill to merely stop the overcrowding problem from worsening, rather than solving the overcrowding problem that already exists. The Associate Press reports that “the bill is expected to halt prison growth rates but not reduce current populations in the state's critically overcrowded prisons and jails.”
Here are some other interesting items from the past week:
- The new Senate immigration bill will have implications for the federal prison population. In the introduced version of the bill (which, if passed, will almost certainly not pass unaltered), additional funds are provided to prosecute and imprison people who cross the border illegally, and prison sentences for doing so are increased. Incarcerating more immigrants, for longer, will add to the growing federal prison population.
- A group of criminal justice researchers and reform advocates, including the ACLU’s Vanita Gupta and Kara Dansky, released a paper this week proposing a revitalized model for justice reinvestment—the strategy of reducing prison populations through policy reform and using the cost savings to invest in high-incarceration communities to make them safer, stronger, and more equitable.
- A new report from Lumosity and the Drug Policy Alliance contains some interesting findings about pretrial detention in New Jersey. Researchers examined county corrections data from 19 New Jersey counties and found that, of the state’s 15,000-person jail population, nearly 40 percent are incarcerated solely because they cannot afford bail. Additionally, prisoners who had been indicted but had not yet had a trial had been in custody on average 314 days. You can find the full report here.
- Vermont’s House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s House killed a similar bill that had already passed the state senate.