Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

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 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.


The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the U.S. prison population fell for the third straight year in 2012. During 2012, the national prison population fell by 27,770, or 1.7 percent. Even larger was the decrease in state prisons, which fell by more than 29,000. That decline, approximately half of which occurred in California, was offset by an increase in the federal prison system of 1,453 prisoners. You can read the full BJS report here.

Federal news

This week, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced the The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013. The bill demonstrates bipartisan support for addressing the causes of unsustainable and unnecessary growth in the federal prison population. It takes an incremental approach to modernizing drug sentencing law by reducing lengthy sentences for certain people convicted of non-violent offenses. The legislation would:

  • Expand the existing federal "safety valve": The safety valve is one of the only means for a judge to sentence below a mandatory minimum in appropriate cases. This bill would make more non-violent drug offenders eligible for the safety valve, thus allowing judges to use more discretion to determine sentences.
  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses: The bill would lower existing mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, which would help alleviate the growth of prison costs and overcrowding.
  • Apply the Fair Sentencing Act to those currently serving sentences for drug offenses: The bill would allow individuals to petition courts for a review of their case based on the Fair Sentencing Act, which was enacted in 2010. The bipartisan Act reduced the sentencing disparity that existed between crack and powder cocaine offenses. However, some individuals are still serving sentences that Congress has determined to be unjust and racially disparate. In 2007 and 2011, federal courts successfully reviewed some crack cocaine sentences based on changes to the Sentencing Guidelines. This legislation would allow individuals to have their sentence reviewed by courts to determine if they deserve a sentence consistent with current law.

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced H.R. 2656, the Public Safety Enhancement Act of 2013. The bill, which has been cosponsored by several House Democrats and Republicans, would allow federal prisoners to earn reductions in their sentences in exchange for completing certain programs.

The ACLU submitted public comments to the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) in reply to its request for comments on its proposed priorities for the next year. We propose that the USSC recommend that Congress reduce the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties; support an expansion of the safety valve for nonviolent offenders; amend the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses; and more. Read our full letter here.

State news

In July, 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 state map. Below are some highlights:

  • Alaska is considering SB 64, which among other things would create a sentencing commission and allow prisoners in jail to earn sentence reductions.
  • California's SB 649, which would give prosecutors the discretion to charge possession of any drug as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, awaits a vote by the House. The bill has already passed the Senate.
  • The District of Columbia Council is considering a bill to make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.
  • 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.
  • Oregon's legislature passed HB 3194 which, among other things, reduces some drug- and property-offense sentences and allows persons on probation to earn sentence reductions. Also passed was SB 463, which allows lawmakers to request a racial impact statement—an estimated impact on racial disparities—for a bill.

In the coming year, a number of state task forces or working groups will conduct research and issue recommendations for criminal justice reform. Those states include Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan (more here), Mississippi, and New Jersey.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker vetoed a budget provision that would have allowed for-profit bail bondsmen to operate in Wisconsin for the first time since 1979.

Justice for Trayvon Martin following the acquittal of George Zimmerman will require more than short term responses. The ACLU is committed to continuing to fight the overcriminalization of communities of color and ending racial profiling. Much has been written following the verdict; here are a few examples of some of the incisive commentary:


In July, a number of states either passed laws or are advancing bills that could safely reduce state youth correctional populations. Below are some highlights:

  • California is considering SB 260, which would require the parole board to review the cases of people who are serving extreme sentences in adult prisons for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. The bill passed the Senate and is now being considered in the House.
  • Massachusetts is considering S. 26, which would raise the age of criminal court jurisdiction from age 17 to 18.
  • Mississippi's legislature passed HB 1043, which make it possible for youth convicted of certain felonies to expunge their records.
  • Texas' legislature passed SB 2, which replaces mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of capital crimes with a mandatory sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that before juvenile court judges place a minor on sex offender registries, the court must find clear and convincing evidence that a minor is likely to reoffend.

Pennsylvania's State Supreme Court enacted a rule change that prohibits juveniles from being held in an adult jail, except in cases in which the juvenile has been charged as an adult.


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 was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The bill, which has already passed the Senate, would impose strict limits on the solitary confinement of youth.
  • Massachusetts is considering S. 1133, which would restrict the use and duration of solitary confinement.

The ACLU of Colorado released a new report, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Colorado's Continued Warehousing of Mentally Ill Prisoners in Solitary Confinement, which finds that in recent years, an increasing proportion of Colorado prisoners held in solitary confinement suffer from mental illnesses. Read our press release for more information.

The ACLU released another report this month, "A Death before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row," the first comprehensive review of the legal and human implications of subjecting death row prisoners to solitary confinement for years. At the link, you will find a discussion of solitary conditions on death row and a blog and video from Anthony Graves, who spent 12 years in solitary confinement on death row in Texas before being exonerated.

In protest of California's overuse of solitary confinement, thousands of California prisoners went on a hunger strike that is still ongoing. The ACLU sent out a petition that urges Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard to end the use of long-term solitary confinement.

PBS aired Herman's House, a documentary about a man who has spent 42 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana state prison. National Prison Project Director David Fathi wrote a reflection for PBS, which you can read here.


  • The South Carolina Department of Corrections has announced that it is abolishing its policy of HIV segregation. The announcement marks the end of the era of HIV segregation in America's prisons, as well as the culmination of a quarter-century long campaign by the ACLU to end HIV segregation throughout the nation.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice submitted a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission asking the commission to draw up simpler guidelines, reform mandatory minimums and the safety valve exception, reduce sentences for low-level drug offenses, and establish alternatives to prison for some offenses.
  • The National Employment Law Project released a new report, "Wanted: Accurate FBI Background Checks for Employment." The report exposes the FBI's failure to ensure that its records are accurate and complete, and the devastating impact faulty records have on workers caught in the criminal justice system. Read NELP's press release for more.

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