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.
Highlights from the ACLU’s Campaign to End Overincarceration
State Legislative Highlights: A number of states have either passed laws or are advancing bills that could reduce state correctional populations. You can find a summary of those bills on our blog; below are some of the highlights:
- Alaska is considering SB 56, which would classify drug possession as a misdemeanor.
- California is considering SB 649, which would give prosecutors the discretion to charge possession of any drug as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
- Colorado is considering bills to establish a pretrial diversion program for adults (HB 1156) and reduce the punishment for theft (HB 1160).
- Florida‘s HB 159 and SB 420 each passed their subcommittees; the bills would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain defendants charged with drug offenses.
- Georgia‘s legislature passed comprehensive juvenile justice reform, HB 242. Gov. Deal is expected to sign the bill. The bill could reduce the number of youth in jail or prison by one-third over the next five years.
- Hawaii‘s Senate unanimously passed SB 472, which would decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, and the House reduced the fine by amendment. The Senate also unanimously passed SB 68, which would allow judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum for most drug offenses. Also on the table is HB 255, which would allow prisons to release elderly persons if they suffer from debilitating illness and pose a low risk to public safety.
- Idaho‘s Senate voted unanimously to establish a legislative commission to study its criminal justice system and offer recommendations for reform.
- Indiana‘s House passed a criminal code revision bill that has some good elements but may ultimately increase the state’s prison population significantly. HB 1006 would create a felony threshold for theft, reduce sentences for low-level drug offenses, reduce the “school zone” for drug-offense enhancements from 1000 to 500 feet, limit the application of the habitual offender statute, and expand judges’ discretion to suspend sentences. But the bill also increases sentence lengths for some violent and sex offenses, and the Department of Corrections projects that the longer sentences will nearly double the state’s prison population in 20 years, although that estimate is challenged by another analysis. The House also passed HB 1482, which would increase the list of convictions eligible for expungement.
- Kansas‘ House passed HB 2170, which would make changes to probation and post-release supervision. Among other things, the bill creates intermediate sanctions for probation violations and allows for people to earn early discharge form community supervision.
- Louisiana is considering HB 103, which would remove marijuana possession from mandatory minimum sentences under the state’s habitual offender law, which can result in a life sentence for marijuana offenses alone. Gov. Jindal also announced his support for upcoming bills to reduce juvenile incarceration, expand the state’s drug courts, and allow for early release of prisoners convicted of drug offenses.
- Maryland‘s Senate passed SB 297, which would decriminalize possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana.
- 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 is considering HB 210, a rewrite of the criminal code that includes sentencing reform, such as raising the felony theft threshold, reducing some drug penalties and reducing the “school zone” for drug-offense enhancements.
- New Mexico‘s House passed HB 465, which would decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, although the governor of New Mexico has threatened a veto if the bill passes the senate.
- Oklahoma‘s House passed HB 1056, to allow elderly prisoners who pose a low public safety risk to apply for conditional parole. As many as 2,000 prisoners could be eligible.
- Oregon is considering a broad reform bill, HB 3194, which among other things would eliminate some mandatory minimums.
- Rhode Island is considering S. 0341, which would reduce the penalties for some minor offenses, such as shoplifting, disorderly conduct, and driving with a suspended license.
- Texas is considering several reform bills, including SB 90, which would expand community treatment for drug possession, and HB 1069, which would reclassify certain minor offenses as misdemeanors. For more, see The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s list of bills to safely reduce incarceration in Texas.
- Vermont‘s Senate passed S. 1, which would require judges to consider the financial cost of available sentences if the defendant is charged with a nonviolent offense. Also in the House is H. 200, which would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.
- West Virginia‘s Senate unanimously passed SB 371, which emphasizes increased community supervision of probationers and parolees, discourages revocation for technical violations, and introduces risk assessment mechanisms that would enable, but not require, judges to make better informed decisions. Advocates are now working with members of the House to amend the bill to ensure that it will cause a meaningful reduction in the state’s prison population.
Senators Leahy and Paul Introduce Mandatory Minimum Reform Bill: This month, senators from both parties introduced a bill that would allow judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum for any federal offense. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would give judges greater flexibility; they would not be forced to administer needlessly long sentences for certain offenders. To learn more, read our blog, as well as this primer on the bill and FAQ sheet from Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Towns Don’t Need Tanks. ACLU Launches Investigation into Police Militarization: American neighborhoods are increasingly being policed by cops armed with the weapons and tactics of war, but very little is is known about exactly how many police departments have military weapons and training, how militarized the police have become, and how extensively federal money is incentivizing this trend. To understand the true scope of the militarization of policing in America, ACLU affiliates in 25 states filed over 255 public records requests with law enforcement agencies and National Guard offices to determine the extent to which federal funding and support has fueled the militarization of state and local police departments. For more:
- Read ten stories about militarized policing at our project’s home page.
- Read this blog by Kara Dansky and Sarah Solon.
- Read The Huffington Post’s coverage of our investigation.
The Sad State of Indigent Defense 50 Years after Gideon v. Wainwright: March 18 was the 50th Anniversary of Gideon, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poor defendants in criminal cases have a constitutional right to legal counsel even if they cannot afford it. But a half a century later, this promise remains woefully unfulfilled. In the coming year, the ACLU will share stories that illustrate the current state of indigent defense on our website, such as this one from Memphis, Tennessee. For more, see these important resources and commentary on the state of indigent defense at Gideon‘s golden anniversary:
- Vanita Gupta and Ezekiel Edwards: Too Many Still Wait to Hear Gideon’s Trumpet
- Tanya Greene: (Zealous, Properly-Resourced Defense) Lawyers for All!
- Stephen Bright and Sia Sanneh: ‘Gideon v. Wainwright’, Fifty Years Later
- Paul Butler: Gideon’s Muted Trumpet
- Andrew Cohen: How Americans Lost the Right to Counsel, 50 Years After ‘Gideon’
- Constitution Project video: Defending Gideon
- NACDL Report: Rationing Justice
- Interview with Karen Houppert, author of Chasing Gideon
ACLU Works to Reduce the Imprisonment of Immigrants in Ongoing Reform Debate: The current debate about immigration reform implicates a large and growing part of our federal prisons. Almost 1 out of 10 federal prisoners is convicted of entering the country illegally—now the most commonly charged federal offense. Historically, many immigrants accused of crossing the border without authorization were simply returned to their countries of origin; today, they are being sent in record numbers to languish in privatized federal prisons under “zero-tolerance” prosecution programs such as Operation Streamline. To learn more about how the ACLU is opposing the incarceration of immigrants who pose no threat to public safety, read this op-ed in The Hill by Vicki Gaubeca and retired federal magistrate judge James Stiven, as well as our recent statement to a Senate committee addressing civil immigration prisons.
Highlights from the ACLU’s Campaign to Stop Solitary Confinement
State Legislative Highlights: States are advancing bills that could reduce the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement:
- Florida is considering SB 812, which would reduce the dangerous impact that solitary confinement has on young persons.
- Massachusetts is considering S. 223, which would restrict the use and duration of solitary confinement.
- Nevada is considering SB 107, which would restrict the use of solitary confinement for youth.
- Texas is considering HB 686 and HB 1266, which would require the state to closely examine its use of solitary confinement.
NBC’s Rock Center Looks at Solitary Confinement of Youth: The ACLU’s Ian Kysel was interviewed for a recent segment about youth solitary confinement on Rock Center. Read Ian’s blog about the interview.
- Take action! Stop the solitary confinement of children.
ACLU of Maine Shares Blueprint for Successful Reform: Since 2009, Maine has reduced its solitary confinement population by over 70 percent. Maine’s reforms were the result of a seven-year effort that is documented in a new report from the ACLU of Maine, Change Is Possible: A Case Study of Solitary Confinement Reform in Maine. In addition to reading the report, read this blog post and visit the report’s home page.
ACLU Testifies to Human Rights Commission on Harms of Solitary Confinement: This month, the ACLU urged the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to review the use of solitary confinement in the United States. Read more about the hearing at our blog, along with our testimony, and the testimony we submitted with Human Rights Watch on the solitary confinement of young people.