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.
In May, a number of states either passed laws or are advancing bills that could safely reduce state adult correctional populations. You can review recent activity in state legislatures to reduce prison populations, with contextual information about each state, at our new map. Below are some highlights:
- Alabama’s legislature sent the governor HB 494, which authorizes district attorneys to establish pretrial diversion programs within their judicial circuits or within any county within their judicial circuit.
- Alaska’s House is still considering SB 56, which would classify drug possession as a misdemeanor. Also under consideration is SB 64, which would create a sentencing commission and allow for earned penalty reductions.
- California’s Senate passed SB 649, which would give prosecutors the discretion to charge possession of any drug as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
- Colorado’s legislature passed a number of important bills. SB 250 makes a number of revisions to drug-offense sentencing. HB 1156 creates a pretrial diversion program for adults. HB 1160 reduces the punishment for theft. For a full, detailed list, see CCJRC’s legislative wrap-up.
- Connecticut’s HB 6511, which would reduce the “school zone” area within which drug offenses carry stiffer sentences, is still before the House.
- Georgia’s governor signed HB 349, which gives judges the option to issue a sentence below the mandatory minimum for drug trafficking and some other offenses if certain conditions are met. You can read more about the bill here.
- Hawaii’s SB 68, which would allow judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum for most drug offenses, is on the governor’s desk.
- Indiana passed Act 1006, a broad criminal code revision. Among many other things, the law creates a felony threshold for theft, reduces sentences for low-level drug offenses, reduces the “school zone” for drug-offense enhancements from 1000 to 500 feet, limits the application of the habitual offender statute, and expands judges’ discretion to suspend sentences. You can read more about the bill here.
- Maryland’s governor signed HB 1396, which increases the felony theft threshold and creates tiers for sentencing felony theft.
- Massachusetts is considering S. 667, which would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, as well as H. 1645, which would reduce the “school zone” area within which drug offenses carry stiffer sentences.
- Missouri’s House passed HB 210, a rewrite of the criminal code that includes some sentencing reform, such as raising the felony theft threshold, reducing some drug penalties and reducing the “school zone” for drug-offense enhancements. The Senate did not pass the measure, however, and it is tabled until next year.
- Nevada’s governor signed SB 71, which will allow prisoners serving consecutive sentences to earn more time off their sentences.
- North Carolina is considering S. 537, which would allow judges to issue a sentence below the mandatory minimum for drug trafficking if certain conditions are met.
- Oregon is considering a broad reform bill, HB 3194, which among other things would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for Robbery II, Assault II, and Sexual Abuse I.
- Texas’ legislature passed SB 1790, which authorizes judges to reduce certain eligible state-jail felonies to a Class A misdemeanor after a successful probation period. For more, see TCJC’s legislative wrap-up.
- Vermont’s legislature passed H. 200, which will decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. The House and Senate passed an amended version of S. 1, which would originally have required judges to consider the financial costs of sentencing options, but in its current version would reduce penalties for minor embezzlement and create two working groups: one to review the state’s criminal code and another to develop a model with which to estimate the costs and benefits of Vermont’s criminal justice policies.
The ACLU welcomes Mishi Faruqee, our new Juvenile Justice Policy Strategist, who will be ramping up our efforts to reduce the incarceration of youth. Mishi comes to us with a long career in juvenile justice that includes leading advocacy coalitions and designing and implementing policy reforms in New York State. We’re excited to have her on board.
Highlights of Recent Efforts to Improve Juvenile Justice:
Georgia’s governor signed HB 242, comprehensive reform legislation that bans the placement of status offenders, limits the placement of youth convicted of misdemeanors, creates a two-tier system for designated felonies so that sentences vary according to the severity of the offense, and creates incentive funding program for community-based alternatives to placement.
Illinois’ legislature passed HB 2404, which will treat 17-year-old youth charged with non-violent offenses as juveniles, not adults. The bill now awaits the signature of Governor Pat Quinn.
Maryland’s governor signed HB 916, which restricts the placement of youth for low-level offenses.
Massachusetts is considering SB 26, which would raise the age of criminal court jurisdiction from age 17 to 18.
Nebraska’s governor signed LB 561, which will overhaul its juvenile justice system to send more youth to community-based programs as alternatives to state confinement. The legislation appropriates $10 million to fund alternatives to incarceration.
Washington’s governor signed HB 1524, which provides mental health diversion services in lieu of formal processing in the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems for youth arrested of certain nonserious offenses. In addition, Washington is considering HB 1651, which would make official juvenile court files confidential except for adjudications of serious violent offenses.
New Research on Juvenile Justice:
- The National Juvenile Defender Center released "Missouri: Justice Rationed: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Juvenile Delinquency Court." The report identifies key barriers that prevent Missouri youth from accessing quality legal representation in Missouri.
- The Campaign for Youth Justice published "Family Comes First: A Workbook to Transform the Justice System by Partnering with Families," which provides practical tools and resources for juvenile justice system practitioners invested in undertaking a family-driven approach to juvenile justice.
- Nicole Pittman, a Senior Soros Fellow at Human Rights Watch, authored "Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S." The report details the harm that sex offender registration laws cause for young people convicted of sex offenses.
States are advancing bills that could reduce the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement. Here are some promising developments from the last month:
- California‘s SB 61, which would impose strict limits on the solitary confinement of youth, was passed by its initial committee.
- Massachusetts is considering S. 1133, which would restrict the use and duration of solitary confinement.
- Nevada’s House passed an amended version of SB 107, which would restrict the use of solitary confinement for youth.
- Texas’ legislature passed SB 1003, which would require the state to closely examine its use of solitary confinement.
ACLU Files Civil Rights Suit Charging Massive Human Rights Violations at East Mississippi Correctional Facility: On May 30, the ACLU along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF). The suit challenges the isolation of mentally ill prisoners; inadequate mental health and medical care; abuse and excessive force by staff; failure to protect prisoners from violence; pervasive filth and unsafe environmental conditions; and inadequate nutrition and food safety. Although designated as a facility to care for prisoners with special needs and serious mental illness, EMCF denies prisoners even the most rudimentary mental health care services. Prison officials have known of these conditions for years but failed to protect the health and safety of prisoners. For more on Dockery v. Epps, read our press release and blog. Also, read one EMCF prisoner’s gut-wrenching account of the sort of violence that is rampant at the understaffed facility.
An amendment to the Senate’s immigration reform bill passed that would establish a framework for the use of solitary confinement in housing immigration detainees, place presumptive limits on the use of such confinement in non-disciplinary settings, and require the Department of Homeland Security to develop effective oversight mechanisms.
OTHER NEWS AND RESOURCES
- ACLU Victory! A federal judge ruled that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has repeatedly violated the Constitution, relying on racial profiling and illegal detentions to target Latinos. Judge G. Murray Snow’s ruling prohibits the sheriff’s office from using “race or Latino ancestry” as a factor in deciding to stop any vehicle with Latino occupants, or as a factor in deciding whether they may be in the country without authorization. Read our press release, our blog, and coverage by the New York Times.
- A task force in the U.S. House of Representatives will take aim at the sprawling federal criminal code. The Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013, led by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), will investigate whether the federal code over-criminalizes minor offenses.
- A second House task force, led by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Chaka Fattah (D-PA), will look at ways to curb the rapidly expanding and overcrowded federal prison system.
- The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) presents the Restoration of Rights Project, a collection of the laws and practices in each U.S. jurisdiction relating to relief from the collateral consequences of conviction. In addition to the full profiles, there is a set of charts covering all 50 states (plus territories and the federal system) that provides a side-by-side comparison and make it possible to see national patterns in restoration laws and policies. These materials will help lawyers minimize the collateral consequences suffered by clients and restore their rights and status.
- In other news related to collateral consequences, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced that later this year, people with nonviolent felony convictions will be able to have their voting rights individually restored. Characterizing the issue as one of “fairness and forgiveness,” Governor McDonnell said that this move will help former prisoners integrate back into society.
- The American Bar Association is in the process of compiling a database of the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction in every state—15 states are currently available.
- The NACDL also released Excessive Sentencing: NACDL’s Proportionality Litigation Project, a collection of each state’s key doctrines and leading court rulings setting forth constitutional and statutory limits on lengthy imprisonment terms and other extreme (non-capital) sentences.
- In U.S. v. Blewett, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit ruled that “the old, racially discriminatory crack sentencing law must now be set aside in favor of the new sentencing law enacted by Congress as the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The Act should apply to all defendants, including those sentenced prior to its passage.” Read the opinion, and coverage of the ruling.
- The Corrections Corporation of America turned 30 years old, an ignominious occasion that is nothing to celebrate. Read our take at our blog, and thanks to all those who joined the protests of CCA’s shameful anniversary.