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 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. Below are some of the highlights:
- Alaska‘s Senate passed SB 56, which would classify drug possession as a misdemeanor. The bill is now before the House. Also under consideration is SB 64, which would create a sentencing commission and allow for earned penalty reductions.
- California‘s Senate passed SB 649; the bill would give prosecutors the discretion to charge possession of any drug as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
- Colorado is considering SB 250, which would make a number of revisions to drug-offense sentencing. Colorado’s House passed a pretrial diversion program for adults (HB 1156) and a bill to reduce the punishment for theft (HB 1160); both bills are now before the Senate. For more, see the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s legislative updates and watch this video to learn more about CCJRC’s work.
- Connecticut‘s HB 6511, which would reduce the “school zone” area within which drug offenses carry stiffer sentences, passed out of committee.
- Florida‘s HB 159 passed out of committee; the bill 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. Georgia also enacted HB 349, which will give judges the option to issue a sentence below the mandatory minimum for drug trafficking and some other offenses if certain conditions are met.
- Hawaii‘s House and Senate both passed SB 68, which would allow judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum for most drug offenses. The two chambers passed different versions of the bill, which are being reconciled in conference.
- Indiana passed Act 1482, which increases the list of convictions eligible for expungement. Additionally, the state’s House and Senate 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 is now considering the Senate’s amended version of the bill.
- Kansas enacted HB 2170, which makes 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. The measure’s provisions are projected to merely avert future prison growth, not reduce the state’s prison population. Here’s a summary of the bill.
- Louisiana is considering HB 103, which would remove marijuana possession from the state’s habitual offender law, which mandates life without parole. Also under consideration is HB 154, which distinguishes aiders and abettors from principal offenders for sentencing purposes.
- Maryland‘s legislature passed 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 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 Jersey is considering a pair of bills, S. 1977 and A. 1465, to decriminalize marijuana possession.
- 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 some mandatory minimums. In the Salem Statesman-Journal, NRA President David Keene argues for the bill, stating that mandatory minimums violate conservative principles.
- 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 SB 90, which would expand community treatment for drug possession, as well as 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 House and 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. The Senate is now considering the House’s amended version. The House also passed H. 200, which would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.
- West Virginia enacted SB 371, which will increase post-release supervision, discourage revocation for technical violations, possibly divert more defendants to substance abuse treatment rather than prison, and introduce risk assessment mechanisms that would enable, but not require, judges to make better informed decisions. The bill’s proponents expect it to halt prison growth but not reduce the state’s overcrowded prison and jail population.
Victory! U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Routine Warrantless Blood Tests in DUI Cases: The Supreme Court ruled in our favor in Missouri v. McNeely, rejecting the proposition that states may routinely compel drivers to submit to a blood test in drunk-driving cases without consent and without a warrant. The majority held that whether an exception to the warrant requirement in such cases exists must be determined on a case-by-case basis. For more, see coverage at SCOTUSblog, visit our website, and read the opinion. ACLU Legal Director Steve Shapiro argued the case before the Supreme Court.
ACLU Weighs in on Model Penal Code: Sentencing: The ACLU submitted comments and recommendations concerning the draft community supervision provisions of the American Law Institute’s (ALI) Model Penal Code: Sentencing. The draft will be presented at the ALI’s 2013 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
More Federal Legislation Introduced to Protect State Marijuana Legalization: Following bills introduced in February by Reps. Polis and Blumenauer to end the DEA’s authority over marijuana, a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives led by Rep. Diana DeGette introduced H.R. 964: Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2013, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act to provide that Federal law shall not preempt State law. A second bipartisan group introduced H.R. 1523: Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013, which would exempt from the federal Controlled Substances Act anyone acting in compliance with state marijuana laws.
ACLU Releases New Report on Ohio’s Debtors’ Prisons: On April 4, the ACLU released The Outskirts of Hope, a report chronicling rampant debtors’ prison activity across the state of Ohio. The U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice of jailing individuals who are unable to pay their fines and court costs two decades ago, but the ACLU found conclusive evidence of these practices in 7 of the 11 Ohio counties examined. Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor responded that this is “a matter that can and must receive further attention,” and met with the ACLU to discuss our recommendations. Read coverage of the report and our blog post.
Other April highlights:
- U.S. Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, an identical counterpart to a bill by the same name introduced in the Senate last month by Senators Leahy and Rand. Just like the Senate bill, it would give federal judges the flexibility to issue sentences below mandatory minimums.
- The most recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review featured the Journalists’ Guide to Criminal Justice Reform from the ACLU.
- ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero joined a coalition of over 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates in signing a letter to President Obama asking him to end the War on Drugs and embrace criminal justice reform.
- The White House has outlined its new strategy for drug control, which it describes as “a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our Nation’s drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.” In its full strategy paper, the Administration proposes to expand alternatives to incarceration and strengthen treatment options.
- Due to sustained opposition from student groups, faith groups, the ACLU, and other civil rights organizations, for-profit prison company GEO Group announced its decision to withdraw the $6 million donation it made to Florida Atlantic University in exchange for naming rights to the school’s football stadium. Read our blog post.
- The ACLU of Ohio has chronicled the troubled 18-month evolution of Lake Erie Correctional Institution, the nation’s first prison sold to a for-profit company. State inspectors have cited the newly-privatized prison for major increases in violence, inadequate medical care, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions. Read our press release and local coverage.
- Check out Marc Mauer’s new book “Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling.” This work – done in collaboration with Sabrina Jones – is an adaptation of Mauer’s original, seminal book into a compelling graphic novel laying out the complex story of four decades of prison expansion and its destructive impact on our communities.
Highlights from the Campaign to Stop Solitary Confinement
State Legislative Highlights: States are advancing bills that could reduce the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement:
- California is considering SB 61, which would impose strict limits on the solitary confinement of youth.
- Florida is considering SB 812, which would reduce the dangerous impact that solitary confinement has on young persons.
- Massachusetts is considering S. 1133, which would restrict the use and duration of solitary confinement.
- Nevada‘s Senate passed SB 107, which would restrict the use of solitary confinement for youth.
- Texas is considering HB 686, HB 1266, and SB 1003, which would require the state to closely examine its use of solitary confinement. The state is also considering SB 1517, which would restrict the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention centers.
International Body Slams U.S. Solitary Confinement Practices: This month, the widespread misuse and abuse of solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the U.S. drew international condemnation when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) criticized the U.S. following weeks of hearings on human rights practices across the Americas region. Read our letter to the IACHR and our blog post.
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