Tennessee's license suspensions ruled unconstitutional, and the news in criminal justice this week

“If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it…”

A federal judge in Nashville has ruled that Tennessee’s policy of revoking drivers licenses over unpaid court fees is unconstitutional. In her ruling, Judge Aleta Trauger noted that driving was “a virtual necessity for most Americans,” and that suspensions made it more difficult for individuals to earn the money needed to pay court debts. Between 2012 and 2016, more than 146,000 people had their licenses suspended under the policy, and only 10,750 have had their licenses reinstated. 

“[T]he debate is happening for a supremely conservative reason: because states have demonstrated it can work.”

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson highlights justice reform as a ‘trans-partisan’ issue, which can unite liberals, libertarians, fiscal conservatives and religious activists. Gerson points to successes in Texas, Georgia and Louisiana, which have limited mandatory minimums, promoted alternatives to incarceration for people with addiction and mental health issues, and made better use of parole. Arthur Rizer and Lars Trautman’s review of red-state reforms, which informs Gerson’s column, was published in the current issue of National Affairs.

“Are we incarcerating the right number of folks for the right crimes?”

As they deal with prison overcrowding and the prospect of $500 million in prison expansions, Idaho officials are looking to Utah as a model of criminal justice reform. Utah reformed drug laws and invested in substance abuse treatment programs, and saw a decline in the prison population and the rate of crime. Idaho law currently allows a sentence of up to seven years in prison for the first-time possession of illegal drugs in any amount, and 49 percent of newly sentenced inmates in the past year were imprisoned for drug crimes.

“Having a conviction, even a minor one, it puts up another hurdle. We’re trying to give people a leg up.”

The New York Times profiles advocates and people with criminal records who are trying to navigate the state’s complicated record-sealing system. A new law, which took effect in October, allows New Yorkers with no more than two misdemeanor convictions or one non-violent felony and one misdemeanor conviction to apply for record sealing after 10 years. As of the end of May, only 346 people had had their convictions sealed. For a deeper dive into reentry and collateral consequences, June’s Federal Sentencing Reporter"Managing Collateral Consequences in the Information Age,” includes studies from Indiana, North Carolina, Nevada, Tennessee and California, as well as a state-by-state guide to expungement.  

“Offering intensive support through reentry services is a well-tested solution that can break the cycle of re-incarceration.”

Legislators in Massachusetts are considering allocating $3 million for community-based, residential reentry programs for fiscal 2019, 33 times more than the current $90,000 budget allocation. Current programs largely rely on grants and donations, and several reentry service providers have closed or scaled back in the last 18 months. The increase in funding would still leave Massachusetts well behind similar states—Ohio spent $66 million on reentry programs in 2017, and New Jersey spent $65 million on state-contracted halfway houses.