Blog of Rights

Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

By Alex Stamm, ACLU Center for Justice at 3:12pm

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.

Reducing Prison Populations in the States

As many state legislative sessions wind down, we’ve written up a Legislative Wrap-Up to summarize 2012 developments. Some recent highlights (and lowlights) include:

•    Georgia: Gov. Nathan Deal signed a reform bill that, among other things, reduces sentences for low-level drug offenses and theft; invests in drug treatment and mental illness courts; and establishes graduated sanctions, such as community service, for probation violations.
•    Louisiana: Gov. Bobby Jindal has pledged to sign an ACLU-sponsored bill that will allow prisoners sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent crimes to appear before a parole board. He also signed a bill that allows low-risk repeat offenders to appear before a parole board after serving one-third of their sentences.  Louisiana's notoriously problematic mass incarceration system also made the news in The New York Times andan eight-part series in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
•    Maryland: Today, Tuesday June 5th, the ACLU and the Maryland Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a briefing on racial disparities in the criminal justice system and discuss next steps to reduce the prison population.
•    Missouri: Gov. Jay Nixon signed two important bills to reduce the state’s prison population. The first new law will use non-incarceration alternatives for violations of probation and parole conditions, such as a missed meeting or failed drug test. The second new law reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses to 18-to-1.

•    California:

•    An ACLU-sponsored bill to make simple possession of drugs a misdemeanor passed out of committee and will receive a floor vote. The bill has received the support of groups across the political spectrum, including Right on Crime.

•    Another bill co-sponsored by the ACLU, which would use evidence-based risk assessment tools to safely release low-risk individuals detained before trial, has also moved from committee to the Senate floor.

•    Illinois: The Senate passed a bill that would reinstate “good time credits,” which would allow prisoners to reduce their sentences by exhibiting good behavior and participating in rehabilitative programs.

•    Kansas: The House passed a bill that would allow judges to use less expensive treatment programs for small-time drug offenses.

•    Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Corbett announced that he wants to pass significant criminal justice reform by the end of June.

•    Colorado: Disappointingly, a bill that would have downgraded sentencing for drug offenses was recently revised to merely commission a study of the state’s drug laws.

•    Oklahoma: In less encouraging news, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a reform bill that may, in the end, increase the state’s prison population. It allows prosecutors to veto judicial decisions to shorten defendants’ sentences and creates a secondary system of incarceration for individuals who violate probation and parole violations. Advocates, including the ACLU, have criticized the measure for not doing enough to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and maybe even making the problem worse.

New York City Stop-and-Frisk

In 2011, the NYPD stopped-and-frisked 700,000 people, nearly all of whom were Black and Latino, often without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Read the NYCLU’s recently published report on NYPD stop-and-frisk practices and a New York Times editorial.

•    The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices have been the subject of much media debate. The NYCLU placed an op-ed in the Daily News rebutting NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s defense of the practice and issued a press release demanding reform, not words, from Commissioner Kelly.

•    A recent NYCLU settlement ended the stop-and-frisk of livery cab passengers.

Capitol Hill Talks about Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform

In May, the ACLU hosted a panel discussion featuring Republican and Democratic state legislators who discussed their respective states’ successful bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts that both saved money and promoted public safety. Congress can learn from these state examples and pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would create a bipartisan commission to examine the nation’s criminal justice system and make reform recommendations in sentencing policy, law enforcement, crime prevention, and re-entry. Take Action! Tell the Senate to adopt meaningful criminal justice reform now.

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