Alternatives to Incarceration

Bipartisan Reforms in Missouri, and the news in criminal justice this week

“…The system needed to change over the years because just locking people up was not always the answer.”

Governor Mike Parson signed a series of bills he said would “bring bipartisan reform to Missouri’s criminal justice system while also promoting public safety and supporting our local prosecutors.” The bills covered a wide range of criminal justice issues, including eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenses, expanding the list of crimes eligible for expungement, prohibiting imprisonment due to an inability to pay jail board bill, and ensuring that each judicial circuit has a veterans’ treatment court. Legislative researchers estimated that the sentencing reforms in House Bill 192 alone could save the state up to $5.8 million once they are fully implemented in 2023.

“States such as Kansas and Georgia are learning that people benefit from community-based punishments that offer character building and skills development without sacrificing safety.”

Juvenile incarceration has dropped 60% since 2000, and Prison Fellowship’s Kate Trammell points to state-level reforms as a major driver of that reduction. Kansas, which focused on diversion programs that provided community-based alternatives to incarceration, saw a 31% drop in juvenile correctional placements between 2015 and 2018, and was able to fund evidence-based programs with $30 million in cost savings. Similarly, Georgia has seen a 46% decline in commitments to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice since reforms were passed in 2013.

“This is a great opportunity for a real career outside of here. It’s not just one of those jobs to get by.”

Federal Correction Institute Englewood hosts a variety of job-training programs that Justice Department officials are touting as models for the First Step Act’s reentry programs. The Colorado prison’s architectural drafting program is assisting the Port Authority of New York in a flood prevention project, the culinary arts program trains aspiring chefs, and a roofing and road paving crew works on repairs and new construction at federal facilities across the country. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen toured Englewood this week, while Attorney General William Barr and South Carolina Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham reviewed training programs at FCI Edgefield. 

“We need to get people into good-paying jobs and get them into housing … These things become pipe dreams for many people with criminal records.”

North Carolina’s Second Chance Act, which would expand and simplify expungement, was advanced by the House Judiciary Committee this week. It was unanimously approved by the Senate in May, and has support from groups across the ideological spectrum including the state Conference of District Attorneys. Senate Bill 562 would allow people with nonviolent misdemeanor convictions to have their public record cleared after seven years. And starting in 2020, records of charges for which a person was not convicted will be automatically removed.

“Families with incarcerated loved ones believe lawmakers would support smarter justice reforms if they took the time to visit a prison or jail, and see what it is like.”

FAMM’s #VisitAPrison challenge launched this week, encouraging state and federal policymakers to pledge to visit a prison or jail in the next 12 months. Legislators from across the country have taken the pledge, including Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Representative Doug Collins (R-GA), Arizona State Representative Lorenzo Sierra, Georgia State Representative Gregg Kennard, New York Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, Oregon State Senator Sara Geiser, and Pennsylvania Senators Camera Bartolotta and Sharif Street. More information about the #VisitAPrison challenge is available here.


Ending the "no-touch" policy at Shakopee, and the news in criminal justice this week

“It’s incumbent upon us to be mindful of the environment we’re creating. We’ve learned that having basic human contact is part of the human experience.”

Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said the department would change the “no-touch” policy enforced at the Shakopee women’s prison. According to Shakopee Warden Tracy Beltz, the policy was intended to be temporary, and was instituted after a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed high rates of sexual misconduct between women incarcerated at Shakopee. Beltz circulated proposed changes to the rules last month, including allowing fist-bumps, hand-shakes and high-fives, but not hugs. During visitation, women at Shakopee are limited to a brief hug and kiss on the cheek from family members and can hold children under 9 on their laps.

“Between counties, high rates of incarceration were associated with a more than 50% increase in drug-related deaths.”

New research published in The Lancet Public Health Journal provides evidence that increased imprisonment has contributed to higher overdose deaths. Even when controlling for opioid prescription rates, crime rates, and socioeconomic and demographic factors, counties with higher jail and prison incarceration rates had higher drug-mortality rates. The research team analyzed records from 2,640 counties, with data from the Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Vital Statistics System, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the National Center for Health Statistics, and county-level incarceration data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“Left with few options but to arrest, disperse, or issue a citation, many officers experience frustration at what amounts to a revolving door between homelessness and the criminal justice system—a cycle that disproportionately affects people of color.”

The Council of State Governments and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released a report this week, “Strengthening Partnerships Between Law Enforcement and Homelessness Service Systems.” Their recommendations came out of a 2018 convening that brought together teams from 10 cities, including Tupelo, Mississippi; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Oregon. Recommendations include developing shared goals and involving critical stakeholders, reviewing and aligning local laws with the goals of the partnership, and equipping law enforcement and homelessness services with training and protocols.

“Despite recent criminal justice reform, new criminal court rules, and successful litigation…thousands of people continue to languish in Mississippi’s county and regional jails awaiting indictment and trial.”  

Students at the University of Mississippi collected jail census reports from sheriffs covering 5,700 people being held before trial and found half had been confined for more than 90 days, and 800 had been confined for more than a year. Under guidelines adopted by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2017, “a defendant should be released pending trial whenever possible,” and indigent defendants may be released on “non-financial conditions that make it reasonably likely that the defendant will appear.” But Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said “automatic money bail” has become accepted practice, leaving advocates to address violations case-by-case in the state’s 82 counties and 300 cities and towns.

“Youth-driven collaboration is an essential component of increasing trust in law enforcement and confidence in the fairness of our system.”

The Justice Ambassadors Youth Council provides a platform for formerly incarcerated youth to create justice reform proposals with leaders from courts, police, corrections, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. At a graduation ceremony last month, ambassadors presented proposals to incorporate social workers into the court process to provide emotional support, include contextual information and experiences of trauma in crime reporting, and implement restorative justice programs in schools. Patrick Edge, part of the first class of ambassadors, said he was initially resistant to the project. “But then when I thought about it more, I thought it was important for law enforcement to hear the idea I had about creating an opportunity for youth.”

Clean Slate in Pennsylvania, and the news in criminal justice this week

“This Clean Slate law is really about preventing a criminal charge being a life sentence to poverty.”

Pennsylvania will begin automatically sealing 30 million criminal records today, thanks to the first-in-the-nation Clean Slate Act. The broad, bipartisan coalition that helped pass Clean Slate last year, including Governor Tom Wolf, Clean Slate Act co-sponsors Jordan Harris and Sheryl Delozier, and representatives from the Justice Action Network, Community Legal Services, the Center for American Progress, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce gathered for a press conference to mark the bill’s full implementation. Following Pennsylvania’s lead,  similar legislation has been passed in Utah and is pending in Michigan.  

“They need to be able to manage the demands of life. They need to have an education that prepares them for employment. They need to have positive relationships with others. They are not going to get any of that locked in a room somewhere.” 

“Not in Isolation,” a new report from the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and the Justice Policy Institute, looks at strategies for safely reducing the use of room confinement in juvenile detention facilities in Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Memphis, Tennessee. While approaches and tactics varied by jurisdiction, one common takeaway was the need for regular training on crisis intervention, adolescent development and de-escalating aggression. Each case study includes perspectives from facility and agency staff, program materials, examinations of challenges and lessons learned, and qualitative and quantitative results. 

“These regulations do not protect public safety. They bar people from employment, and too often the result of unemployment is homelessness, hunger, and re-incarceration.”

Rhode Island Senate Bill 610, which would reform the state’s occupational licensing requirements, was unanimously passed by the Senate this week with a vote of 37-0.  The bill would create a process to determine whether a prior conviction was relevant to the licensed occupation, and ensure a license could not be denied solely on the basis of a criminal record. More than 100 occupations in Rhode Island currently require a background check inclusive of non-related convictions and “crimes of moral turpitude,” and 40% of licensed occupations are in the state’s fastest-growing fields.

“The only way we’re going to move the needle…is to find common, middle ground that is good policy.”

Oklahoma’s new 15-member Criminal Justice Reentry, Supervision, Treatment and Opportunity Reform (“RESTORE”) Task Force, hopes to advance criminal justice reform with an emphasis on compromise. Subcommittees will focus on six areas of concern: the “pipeline” of factors resulting in incarceration; “front end” issues including bail, bond, diversion and alternatives to incarceration; sentencing issues related to serious crimes, habitual offenders, and the impact of sentencing changes; “back end” concerns including re-entry, pardon and parole, commutations, supervision and occupational licensing; rural issues including access to treatment and effective counsel; and using data and research to improve oversight and reduce crime.

“The choice between civil asset forfeiture and fighting crime is a false dichotomy.”

Writing in the Clarion Ledger, Brett Kittredge of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and Lee McGrath of the Institute for Justice call for an end to civil asset forfeiture. “Mississippi law enforcement isn’t necessarily busting drug kingpins,” they argue, pointing to a review of the first 18 months of the state’s civil forfeiture database. Fewer than 10 seizures had a value of more than $60,000, and the vast majority were for $5,000 or less. Dismissing the argument that civil forfeiture is needed to fight crime, the authors say North Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska, which have abolished civil forfeiture, haven’t seen spikes in crime or become “havens for drug dealers.”



"Confined and Costly," and the news in criminal justice this week

“Many states have made recidivism reduction a public safety priority, but the harsh reality is that supervision fails nearly as often as it succeeds.”

The Council of State Governments Justice Center released a report this week called “Confined and Costly,” examining how parole and probation violations contribute to state prison populations. They found that 45% of state prison admissions are due to violations of probation or parole, costing more than $9.3 billion annually. The report includes state-by-state analysis of supervision violations and budget impacts. More than half of people in prison on any given day in Idaho, Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin are there for a supervision violation, compared to fewer than 5% in Maryland, Michigan, Alabama and Massachusetts.

“It’s the talk of the prison yard in a lot of prisons statewide.”

Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board received nearly 750 applications for commutations in the first four months of the year, almost twice as many as in the same period in 2018. House Bill 1269, signed into law this year, created a single-stage commutation docket for people whose convictions are for felonies now reclassified as misdemeanors, but the law doesn’t take effect until November 1. Until then, the board conducts a two-stage review and sends recommendations to the governor. More than 560 applications were submitted in May alone. “We’re doing our best to keep afloat,” Interim Executive Director Melinda Romero told the Oklahoman. “We’re processing them as fast as we can.”

“The assumption is often made that people with mental illness end up in the justice system because they refuse healthcare interventions. In these cases, the opposite was true; the healthcare system refused them.”

Between 2017 and 2018, 142 people were arrested for trespassing at five Portland hospitals and a psychiatric emergency department, and 109 of them were seeking or being discharged from care, according to a new report from Disability Rights Oregon. The authors urge hospitals to create better discharge plans for patients, and seek funding for diversion programs for people with mental illness. Officials from Legacy and OHSU defended their practices, but Providence Medical Group’s chief executive of behavioral health said they had “significantly reviewed and revised [their] processes and procedures” based on the report.

“It’s tough to go around without teeth.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s denture clinic delivered its first sets of 3D-printed teeth this week. A Houston Chronicle investigation last year revealed dentures were only being provided in cases of “medical necessity,” and chewing was not considered a necessity. The number of dentures distributed to incarcerated people had dropped sharply, going from 1,295 in 2004 to only 71 in 2016. After the investigation, corrections officials pledged to update policies, hire a denture specialist and start a denture clinic. Texas is now the first prison system to 3D-print dentures on-site, and can produce four sets of teeth per day at a cost of $60-70 each.

“Florida’s sentencing policy has not changed for decades despite research indicating it may not be providing the public safety benefits envisioned, and, in fact, its emphasis on punishment may be in conflict with best practices for recidivism reduction.”  

Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code contributes to sentencing disparities across the state and results in the overincarceration of low-level offenders, according to a new report by the Crime and Justice Institute. The authors recommend considering six policy changes, including shortening sentence lengths, creating a meaningful right of appeal for sentences that exceed specified ranges, and implementing post-release supervision for some defendants. Previous reports by the Crime and Justice Institute focused on Florida’s persistently high prison population, and data-driven recommendations to improve the state’s justice system.

White House Withdraws Expanded Background Check Plan, and the news in criminal justice this week

“The sentiment against this was overwhelming.” 

After a bipartisan outcry, the White House withdrew a plan to require federal job applicants to disclose their participation in diversion programs. Applicants would have been asked whether they had “been subject to judge or court specified conditions requiring satisfactory completion before a criminal charge has been or will be dismissed.” Nearly 4,000 comments were submitted to the Federal Register against the proposed change, which was first posted in late February by the Office of Personnel Management.

“We need a public safety system that holds youth accountable for crimes but just as importantly ensures they can grow and change for the better.”

Senate Bill 1008, which would end the practice of automatically referring youths accused of certain crimes to adult court, passed in the Oregon House by a vote of 40-18, narrowly meeting the 2/3 majority required to amend a voter-approved initiative. In addition to requiring a hearing for referrals, the bill allows for a “second look” hearing halfway through a sentence, and eliminates life without parole sentences for juveniles. Governor Kate Brown has indicated that she will sign the bill. We are sad to note that Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters, who helped lead the fight for SB 1008, passed away this week. “Justice reform has been my passion for many years,” Winters said in one of her final public statements, “and I am so pleased that we got this bill across the finish line.”

“If resources are limited, are there still ways to optimize programming’s beneficial effects?”

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute, “Optimizing the Effectiveness of Correctional Programming: The Importance of Dosage, Timing and Sequencing,” offers an evidence-based framework for policymakers and practitioners to design effective interventions. Suggestions include providing longer, more intensive programming for high risk individuals, offering multiple interventions, and back-loading programming closer to a release date. Author Grant Duwe also recommends addressing recidivism factors in a thoughtful sequence, by focusing on the most influential risk factors before attending to more moderate factors like education, employment, and substance abuse.

“Tens of thousands of Oklahomans will be eligible to apply to have their felony taken off their record, which will open up new and hopefully more fruitful employment opportunities for them.”

Oklahoma House Bill 1269 was signed into law this week by Governor Kevin Stitt, making the reforms of State Question 780 retroactive. It establishes an expedited commutation process for individuals serving a felony sentence for crimes that are now misdemeanors, and simplifies expungement for low-level drug possession and property convictions. Up to 60,000 people could be eligible for expungement, and 500-800 people who are currently serving felony prison sentences could be released. The law takes effect on November 1, 2019.

“Asking hard questions and demanding evidence-based answers can protect both the public’s pocket book and its safety – on our streets, in our courtrooms, in our jails and prisons and in our communities.”

The Arizona Town Hall Association conducted 16 public meetings around the state and produced a report with recommendations for official action and personal commitments to improve the state’s justice system. Participants in the town halls included elected officials, community and business leaders, reform advocates, law enforcement, students, and people who are incarcerated—two of the town halls took place inside correctional facilities. In addition to detailing the results of the community meetings, the report includes background research from the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy on elements of Arizona’s criminal justice system.

 

Occupational Licensing Reform in Pennsylvania, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Blanket prohibitions without considering the circumstances don’t just do the applicant a disservice, but our entire commonwealth in need of a talented workforce.”

bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced legislation this week to reform the state’s occupational licensing requirements. Senate Bill 637 is sponsored by Senators John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, Judy Schwank, D-Berks, and Lisa Baker, R-Dallas, and the companion legislation, House Bill 1477, is sponsored by Representatives Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, and Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland. Both bills would prohibit state boards, commissions or departments from denying or revoking a license based on unrelated criminal convictions, ensure that licensure boards apply fair and consistent approaches, and provide individuals with preliminary rulings about barriers to licensure before they pursue training programs.

“The full impact of H.B. 239 will take years to materialize as new policies and practices are phased in across the state. Still, in the initial years after the launch of system improvements, early signs indicate progress.”

An issue brief from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Utah’s Juvenile Justice Reforms have already produced positive outcomes, including a 23% decline in youth entering the juvenile justice system between fiscal years 2016 and 2018. In that same time period, court referrals that lead to nonjudicial adjustments reached 55% of all referrals, an increase of 224%. Detention admissions declined by 44%, allowing the Juvenile Justice Services to close units at the Salt Lake Valley Detention Center and Slate Canyon Youth Center.

“If one was going to design and implement a college program based on the two-years-inside/two-years-outside model, what went well and what might be done differently?”

Researchers from the RAND Corporation examined North Carolina’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project and made a series of recommendations to states looking to implement postsecondary education programs for people who are incarcerated. Suggestions include increasing the range of degree programs, allowing post-release participants to attend college part-time, funding full-time navigators and administrators, and ensuring long-term financing to sustain the program. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has continued to fund elements of the Pathways program after the demonstration project funding ended, and has added education to housing, employment and transportation as the pillars of reentry.

“They’re saying well, this is a brewing constitutional crisis. No. It already is one. It’s been one for a long time.”

Wisconsin pays just $40 an hour to private attorneys providing indigent defense, the lowest rate in the country, creating significant delays in appointing counsel. In Marathon County, it took an average of 80 phone calls and 17 days to find a willing attorney. In the case of Trequelle Vann-Marcouex, an 18-year-old who committed suicide after a preliminary hearing at which he went unrepresented by counsel, the state public defender’s office made more than 300 calls before they found an attorney who would take his case. A 2011 ruling from the state Supreme Court cautioned that the funding crisis “could compromise the integrity of our justice system,” but funding has not significantly increased in the ensuing eight years.

“…The conclusion was in the end that it really is a good investment to administer these programs, and Project MORE is doing a great job for the county, and we’re seeing really good results.”

An audit from the Dutchess County Comptroller showed that the county’s partnership with Project Model Offender Reintegration Experience, Inc. (“Project MORE”) has delivered a good return on investment. Program costs per participant ranged from $6.84 to $46.04 per day, compared with the average cost of $210 per day for people incarcerated at the county jail. In addition to continuing Project MORE funding, Comptroller Robin Lois recommended evaluating the possible expansion of gender-specific programming at the Women’s Center.

A New Bipartisan Consensus, and the news in criminal justice this week

“There is a new bipartisan consensus on criminal justice, and it is that the old consensus was wrong.”  

The Brennan Center for Justice published Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders, featuring essays from presidential hopefuls Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Justice Action Network’s Holly Harris, NAACP’s Derrick Johnson, #cut50’s Van Jones, and Trump advisor Jared Kushner. The report is a follow-up from 2015’s Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice. “Four years later, I think it’s a very different landscape,” noted Brennan Center’s Inimai Chettiar, “..they are not only committing to ending mass incarceration but also coming forward with far bigger proposals and more specific proposals.”

“Being a drug addict should not be a crime in the State of Ohio. Period.”

The Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony this week on Senate Bill 3, which would reduce penalties for some low-level, non-violent offenses, particularly drug possession offenses. The bill’s sponsors, Senators John Eklund (R-Munson Township) and Sean O’Brien (D-Bazetta), said current Ohio law too often “mandates ever-increasing prison terms for people who need treatment much more than they need punishment.” New polling from Public Opinion Strategies and the Justice Action Network showed that Ohio voters overwhelmingly support sentencing reform and second-chance policies.

“By utilizing MAT and improving access to this lifesaving treatment, communities and correctional agents can reduce the risk of overdose and death post-release.”

An estimated 58% of state prisoners and 63% of sentenced jail inmates have substance abuse disorders, and states are using more data-driven approaches to addressing their needs during incarceration and in the reentry period. Kentucky increased funding for naltrexone and substance abuse disorder programs in 2015 that provided structured environments, mentorship offerings and a sense of community. Pennsylvania’s Nonnarcotic Medication Assisted Substance Abuse Treatment Grant Pilot Program funded prison-based social workers and provided naltrexone to inmates upon release. And in Ohio, State Targeted Response funds were used to expand the number of doctors with buprenorphine waivers. 

“Most counties collect so little from the fees they do not even track what they bring in…”

Last year, Los Angeles County spent $3.9 million on collections and brought in $3.4 million in adult probation fees, losing $500,000 and only collecting fees on 4% of active probation cases. The cost of collections and the economic impact on returning citizens led San Francisco to eliminate all local justice system fees and write off $32 million in debt owed by 21,000 people.  State Senator Holly Mitchell introduced the Families Over Fees Act, which would eliminate administrative fees for people in the criminal justice system and “remove economic shackles on people who’ve already paid their debt to society.” 

“These people are our neighbors…It’s to all of our benefit to make sure that when they are released they are better prepared to be productive citizens.”

Rutherford County Correctional Work Center, partnered with local businesses to provide training in mechatronics, a mix of mechanical engineering and electronics. The center serves more than 180 incarcerated people, and works with outside employers on work release programs. As part of a request for $100,000 in additional funding, Superintendent William Cope predicted a reduction in the current recidivism rate of 32% for those released in the county.

Reentry Court in Oregon, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Right now, these guys are not gaining the tools or assistance that allows them to be successful. Reentry Court takes a holistic approach to those barriers.”

In Oregon, Lane County’s Reentry Court provides people returning from federal prison with support to achieve sobriety, gain employment, and develop coping and problem-solving skills. Those who complete the 12-month program without a violation receive a one-year reduction of their probation term. Reentry team members seek to address the main barriers to successful transition from prison: substance abuse, mental health issues, inadequate housing, and a lack of peer support and guided programming. The revocation rate for participants is 26% lower than the rest of the state’s supervised release programs.

“The benefits of Clean Slate are clear: lower crime rates, taxpayer money saved as a result of reduced incarceration, and a stronger economy that allows more qualified job seekers to participate.”

Writing in the Hartford Courant, Right on Crime’s Marc Levin and the Center for American Progress’s Rebecca Vallas urged Connecticut lawmakers to pass the Clean Slate Act pending in the legislature. The Clean Slate Act would provide for the automatic expungement of criminal records for those who have completed their sentence and remained crime free for five years after a non-violent felony, or three years after a misdemeanor. Clean Slate laws have gained traction across the country—Pennsylvania and Utah both passed automatic expungement laws, and Kentucky and New Mexico expanded opportunities for expungement this year.

“It should be more open. It shouldn’t be so closed that we don’t know what their decisions are based on.”

The Ohio Parole Board is under scrutiny from a wide array of critics, including crime victims, incarcerated people, lawyers and lawmakers. Much of the criticism focuses on a lack of transparency: hearings are not open to the public, records are kept secret, and board debate and votes are conducted behind closed doors. Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith expressed confidence in the current board, but said she planned to appoint four new members with more diverse backgrounds, ask outside experts to recommend reforms, and look for ways they can be more transparent.

“The city has a reputation as liberal, but these data evidence quite authoritarian policing practices compared to other large Texas jurisdictions.”

Researcher Scott Henson analyzed data from 4.6 million traffic stops conducted across 38 of the largest jurisdictions in Texas, found wide disparities in the use of force and arrests for minor misdemeanors, and identified the Austin Police Department as “among the worst in each category.” Police in Austin were more likely to use injury-causing force against drivers than any other large jurisdiction—four times more often than state troopers and twenty times the rate of the San Antonio Police Department. Austin was also in the top ten for arresting drivers for Class C misdemeanor charges, and in the top five on arrests for outstanding warrants.

“To have to be shackled with chains around their ankles, wrists and waist, even when they’re in the delivery room—it’s humiliating.”

Georgia House Bill 345, which would ban the shackling of pregnant women in jails and prisons, and prohibit placing them in solitary confinement during their postpartum recovery, was approved in the Senate by a vote of 52-1. The legislation would also mandate that vaginal exams of pregnant incarcerated women be conducted by licensed medical professionals. A similar version of the bill was approved by the House earlier this year. Legislators have until Tuesday, when the General Assembly adjourns, to iron out differences between the two versions.

How to Classify Violent Crimes, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Rethinking whether these kinds of crimes should be considered violent would change the conversation about what must be done to cut the incarcerated population…”

The Marshall Project conducted a nationwide survey of statutes and found that many people being classified as “violent” criminals have committed offenses most would not consider violent. In Kentucky, possession of anhydrous ammonia with intent to manufacture methamphetamines is classified as a violent crime, and carries a potential sentence of 20-50 years. In Minnesota, possession of marijuana can be considered a violent offense. And in North Carolina, trafficking a stolen identify is classified as a violent crime.

“HB 1352 is an important bill that will help remove barriers to success for thousands of Mississippians.”

Mississippi’s Criminal Justice Reform Act, signed by Governor Phil Bryant this week, includes wide-ranging reforms to the state’s justice system. The bill would expand Mississippi’s drug courts to a system of intervention courts that include mental health courts, veterans’ courts, and other specializations; allow people charged with misdemeanors to avoid pretrial incarceration; end driver’s license suspensions for non-driving related offenses; expand expungement opportunities; and allow individuals with drug-related convictions to receive workforce training and nutrition assistance, among other changes.

“…We will responsibly take steps to assist our friends and neighbors who deserve a second chance to contribute to our society.”

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 370 into law this week, allowing New Mexicans to ask the courts to seal records of arrest or conviction. Expungements will not be allowed for crimes against children, sex offenses, drunk driving, embezzlement and some other serious crimes. Regrettably, occupational licensing reforms and data-driven probation reforms were not signed into law.

“The [New] Jersey results are exciting, because they hopefully will add fuel to that forward motion in states that are resistant to making change, out of fear that it will increase violent crime.”

The New Jersey Judiciary released a report this week on the aftermath of the state’s near-elimination of cash bail, and found that the state’s jail population dropped by 44%,while rates of recidivism and failure to appear saw only slight increases. The report concluded that the reforms have “reduced unnecessary detention of low-risk defendants, assured community safety, upheld constitutional principles and preserved the integrity of the criminal justice process.” The Administrative Office of the Courts is continuing to study the policy and its results, with a focus on reducing racial disparities and addressing concerns related to domestic violence.

“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”

The Department of Justice found that Alabama’s prisons were overcrowded and understaffed, and that officials had shown a “flagrant disregard” to the rights of prisoners. Major prisons were operating at 182% of capacity, and some facilities had only 20% of their staff positions filled. The report also described “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive.” The Department of Justice gave Alabama officials 49 days to address the concerns in the report.

Minnesota's Proposed Parole Board, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Deciding whether an inmate has changed and merits the opportunity to be returned to society shouldn’t rest with one person.” 

The Minnesota Legislature is considering resurrecting a parole board similar to the one the state had in the early 1980s. Under current law, Minnesota’s commissioner of the Department of Corrections is the only person authorized to grant or deny parole requests for individuals serving a term of life in prison. The proposed board would consist of five panelists recommended by leaders of both political parties, each of whom have at least five years of criminal-justice related experience. Paul Schnell, who was recently appointed to head the Department of Corrections, has endorsed the reform.

“This is a perfect opportunity for our partners and stakeholders to come to the table with us, and look at ways of streamlining and improving our system of releasing eligible state offenders in a timely manner.”

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has put forward a proposal to bring the DOC, county clerks and sheriffs together to ensure that people are not held in jails and prisons past their official release dates. The proposal comes after a NOLA.com and Times-Picayune investigation found that hundreds and possibly thousands of people had been incarcerated longer than their sentences required.  In a review of 200 cases in which people were eligible for immediate release, the DOC found they had to wait an average of 49 additional days beyond their official release date, at an annual taxpayer expense of $2.8 million.

“For a lot of people, once you get into this cycle, you don’t get out.”

A new study from the Duke University School of Law found 1,225,000 active driver’s license suspensions for non-driving related reasons in North Carolina, comprising nearly 15% of all adult drivers in the state. Overall, 67.5% of those suspensions were for failure to appear in court, 21.4% were for failure to pay traffic costs, fines or fees, and 11% were for both. The researchers also found a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic drivers, who made up 29% of driving-age North Carolinians, and 58% of suspensions for failure to pay fines and costs.

“The time has come for us to engage in a deep and critical reflection on the fairness of our juvenile justice system.”

Oregon lawmakers heard testimony this week about a series of reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system, including removing the mandate that juveniles aged 15 or older be tried as adults for some serious crimes. The bills have garnered support from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters, and Oregon Youth Authority Director Joe O’Leary. Recent polling by GBAO showed 88% of Oregonians want the youth justice system to focus on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than punishment and incarceration.  

“Before considering what additional reforms are needed to fix a severely broken criminal justice system, U.S. elected leaders must first stop supporting the very mechanisms that cause the failure in the first place.”

The Center for American Progress released a report this week on the legacy of the Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, arguing that the law’s effects—particularly financial incentives for stricter state laws—continue to undercut reform efforts. The authors point to several areas of concern, including the expansion of federal offenses and criminal penalties and the funding of jail and prison construction.