Update: This blog post was updated on 9/11/2012 to include information on overcriminalization and the GOP platform.
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.
As California shifts more of its prisoners to county jails, it must be careful not to solve one overcrowding problem by creating another. To that end, the state is looking at how and why it detains defendants that are awaiting trial, who comprise 71 percent of California’s county jail detainees. Legislators are currently considering a bill that would require courts to consider “own recognizance” pretrial release for certain populations of defendants and promote the use of risk assessments, which enable judges to better identify which defendants need not be detained before trial. The experience of Santa Cruz County, which implemented a wide array of community-based alternatives for the pre-trial population, is encouraging: the county’s population of pretrial detainees is 20% below the state average.
The Orleans public defender’s office, which represents 80 percent of the parish’s criminal defendants, was overworked before laying off one-third of its attorneys this year. Now, indigent persons accused of crimes in New Orleans languish behind bars for longer than ever as they await the appointment of counsel. In an excellent piece, Karen Houppert describes the human costs of Orleans Parish’s failure to provide timely representation to its poorest citizens.
The ACLU of Washington recently released a report that identifies the costs to state taxpayers of arresting, trying, and punishing marijuana offenders. The data is summarized in an interactive map that breaks down costs by county. This fall, Washington voters will consider a ballot initiative that would allow the sale at state-licensed stores of up to an ounce of marijuana. State budget analysts say that tax revenue from marijuana sales could bring in as much as $1.9 billion over the next five years.
The Republican Party’s 2012 platform encouragingly rejects overcriminalization—the precipitous growth of the federal criminal code—a problem excellently outlined by the NACDL-produced videos featured this week in a piece from the National Review Online. Also, the platform embraces the diversion of first-time, nonviolent offenders to rehabilitative programs instead of prison and promotes the use of rehabilitative services for prisoners. These policy statements reflect some of the smart-on-crime trends recently endorsed by prominent Republican leaders.
California lawmakers this week sent Governor Jerry Brown a bill that would exempt drug users from prosecution if they seek medical assistance. A similar bill was passed earlier this year by the New Jersey legislature, and awaits the signature of Gov. Christie.