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.
Recently-passed Criminal Justice Reform Legislation in the States
• Hawaii: Gov. Abercrombie signed a pair of bills that, among other things, allow courts to impose probation for first- and second-time drug possession; expand the use of risk assessments before trail and during parole hearings, allowing the court to identify and release low-risk defendants and prisoners; and allocate funds for community-based treatment programs.
• Illinois: Gov. Quinn signed a bill that revives good-time credit for nonviolent offenders who complete drug treatment, job training or rehabilitation programs while behind bars. The new law requires prisoners to serve at least 60 days before they could be released for good-time credit, and prisoners can earn no more than 180 days of good-time credit.
• New Jersey: Gov. Christie is expected to sign a bill that expands eligibility for the state’s drug court program and mandates that nonviolent, drug-dependent offenders receive treatment rather than prison time. The Senate passed the measure by a 36-1 vote.
• Ohio: Gov. Kasich signed a bill that will make it easier for former prisoners to find employment by allowing a person to seal in their records one felony and one misdemeanor conviction or two misdemeanor convictions. The bill also creates a certificate of qualification that will give former prisoners access to some occupational licenses that they previously could not obtain.
• Pennsylvania: Gov. Corbett signed a bill that, among other things, expands eligibility for alternative sentencing programs, allows for intermediate sanctions so that fewer technical parole violators are sent to prison, and diverts some low-level defendants from prison. However, the bill also eliminates the pre-release program that allows qualifying prisoners to be paroled to halfway houses before their minimum dates.
• Tennessee: Gov. Haslam signed a bill that allows some former prisoners to expunge a select set of felonies and misdemeanors. The law applies only to those with a single conviction. A fiscal analysis projects that the bill will increase expungement requests by 60,000 per year.
As SCOTUS Term Closes, Court Delivers Two More Victories
In June, the Supreme Court released its opinions in a pair of sentencing cases that invalidate the unfair sentences of thousands of adult and juvenile prisoners:
• Dorsey v. U.S. and Hill v. U.S.: The Court ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in federal sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, applies to people whose offenses predate the law but who were sentenced after its passage. Learn more from this blog post, the opinion, and the ACLU’s amicus brief.
• Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs: The Court ruled that mandatory juvenile life sentences without parole are unconstitutional. Learn more from this blog post and the opinion.
North Carolina Legislature Limits Racial Justice Act
This month, North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA) was partially repealed. The repeal bill eliminates use of statistical proof as the sole evidence of bias; requires defendants to prove discrimination in their individual cases; excludes claims based on statewide discrimination in favor of county and district claims; and rescinds the guarantee to claimants of an evidentiary hearing. Though significantly limiting the law, these changes will not eliminate RJA claims, and the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project has pledged to continue representing RJA clients. In April, ACLU client Marcus Robinson’s sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.
Growing Awareness of New Debtors’ Prisons
The New York Times recently ran a story about the disturbing trend of jailing indigent defendants for failing to pay crushing legal debts. National Prison Project attorney Carl Takei expanded on the problem in this piece, which highlighted our 2010 report documenting the recent rise of debtors’ prisons. The ACLU is working on this growing problem in several states.
The Senate Hosts its First-Ever Hearing on Solitary Confinement
A Senate Judiciary subcommittee heard moving testimony from Anthony Graves, a death-row exoneree who spent years in solitary confinement. The subcommittee also heard from other witnesses, including Christopher Epps, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections in Mississippi, who reduced prison violence and cut his budget by millions by steeply cutting back on solitary confinement.
• Read Anthony Graves’ story, and listen to him speak.
• Read coverage from The New York Times here and here.
• Read National Prison Project Director David Fathi’s letter to the editor in The Washington Post.
• You can also watch the hearing and read the ACLU’s testimony.