Fairness in Court and System Financing

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.”



The Next Step Act in Ohio, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Our broken system failed Alex, and countless other Ohioans, but we can start to make it right with Senate Bill 3.”

In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio State Senators John Eklund (R-Munson) and Sean O’Brien (D-Bazetta) urged their fellow legislators to support Senate Bill 3, which would make some simple drug possession charges a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. The “Next Step Act” follows the federal First Step in embracing “bipartisan, commonsense, data-driven reforms.” Eklund and O’Brien cited polling from the Justice Action Network showing 87% of Ohio voters supported sentencing reforms for low-level nonviolent offenders.

“The same crime in two different counties can have very different results when it comes to your freedom, if you’re given financial bail, if you’re held pretrial—even sentencing.”

A new study from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy found vast disparities between counties in pretrial release and financial conditions of bail. Their reportanalyzed 217,273 cases from 2018. Stark differences applied in financial bail—individuals were released without financial conditions in 68% of cases in Martin County and only 5% of cases in McCracken County. And the affordability of set bail amounts varied widely across the state: in Hopkins County, 99% of those offered cash bail were able to pay it, while only 17% were able to pay in Wolfe County.

“New data about the effects of the Frist Step Act…is showing that past injustices can be corrected, even in the most politically polarized of times.”

According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than 1,000 people have received sentence reductions as a result of the First Step Act. The average sentence reduction has been 73 months and more than 91% of those whose sentences were reduced were African American. The New York Times editorial board lauded the releases, and encouraged President Trump to fill vacancies at the Sentencing Commission to ensure proper application of elements of the First Step Act, including compassionate release.

“Simply put, increased forfeiture funds had no meaningful effect on crime fighting. However, forfeiture was strongly linked to worsening economic conditions.”

The Institute for Justice examined more than ten years of data from the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program to determine whether asset forfeiture helped fight crime. They found that equitable sharing funds did not increase the number of crimes solved, and did not reduce drug use. Instead, they found greater use of forfeiture when departments are under fiscal stress—when unemployment increased by 1%, equitable sharing seizures increased 9%.

“I’m not trying to justify anything. But there is more than one way to pay for a crime, and I have overpaid for mine.”

Legislators in Maine are debating a bill that would allow courts to reduce juvenile restitution based on financial circumstances or allow some of the debt to be paid off with community service. While many states have moved to reduce or eliminate juvenile fines and fees, only six states (Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia place a limit on juvenile restitution obligations. These debts are not consistently collected—Connecticut recovered 87% of the amount owed, while Mississippi recovered only 28%. 

Asset Forfeiture in Texas, and the news in criminal justice this week

“There is a principle of being innocent until proven guilty, and forfeiture just takes that and flips it on its head.”

The Texas Tribune reviewed thousands of pages of court records related to asset forfeiture in four counties: Harris, Reeves, Smith and Webb. The 560 cases reviewed resulted in the seizure of nearly $10 million and 100 cars. In approximately 40% of cases, the person whose property was seized was not found guilty of a crime related to the seizure. In the first half of 2016 alone, police in Harris County seized $8 million in cash and 67 vehicles, and 15% of cases had no related criminal charge.

“By reducing the burden our occupational licensing laws have on those with criminal records, we will strengthen our communities by lowering crime rates as well.”
 
Pennsylvania State Senators John DiSanto (R-15) and Judy Schwank (D-11) and Representatives Sheryl Delozier (R-88) and Jordan Harris (D-186) wrote a joint op-ed in PennLive about the need for reform to the state’s occupational licensing requirements. They’ve introduced Senate Bill 637 and House Bill 1477, which would prevent licensing boards from denying or revoking a license based solely on one’s criminal history unless the conviction is directly related to the licensed occupation. Both bills would also allow individuals to find out if they are eligible for licensing before they go through the training and educational requirements for the particular profession. 

“…Many of the broader challenges that probation departments face can be traced to the way that they are funded—usually based upon the number of people being supervised at any given time.”
 
In The Hill, Right on Crime’s Michael Haugen reviewed a report finding that performance-based funding has contributed to reduced caseloads, lower costs, and fewer probation revocations. Successful models include Ohio’s “Reclaim” Program, which incentivizes community-based programming for juvenile offenders and at-risk youth, and Illinois’ “Redeploy” Program, which provides financial incentives to jurisdictions that expand evidence-based interventions focused on addressing underlying drivers of crime. 
 
“Barriers to communication from high inmate calling rates interfere with inmates’ ability to consult with their attorneys, impede family contact that can make prisons and jails safer spaces, and foster recidivism.”
 
In Iowa, the average cost of a 15-minute call from prison or jail was $7.03, with some counties charging as much as $11. The state utility board, tasked with ensuring that reasonable rates are charged by state service providers, has asked the 11 companies who provide calling services for more information about their pricing. Iowa’s prices are $1.29 higher than the national average of $5.74, and are the 13th-highest in the country. Arkansas has the most expensive rates, charging an average of $14.49 for 15 minutes.
 
“How do you find meaning in a life where you may never see the outside world?”
 
Photographer Sara Bennett photographed women serving prison sentences of 18 years or longer at New York’s Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities. The women, who were all convicted of murder, were photographed at their workplaces, including the library, gym, and infant center. “The lifers all know each other,” Bennett said. “…It’s a society. Sometimes it feels like a secluded community.”

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.

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

“This is a huge deal.”

Legislators in Oklahoma voted to create more specific use of criminal records in state occupational licensing decisions, and remove “good character” requirements from those laws with nearly unanimous, bipartisan support. House Bill 1373 was approved in the House by vote of 90-2 and in the Senate by a vote of 42-0, and Governor Stitt is expected to sign it into law. The Institute of Justice previously ranked Oklahoma as the 11th most burdensome state for occupational licensing, noting that 29 of 102 low-to-moderate income occupations required certification, and data from the  University of Tulsa showed Oklahomans with criminal records had an unemployment rate almost five times as high as the general population.   

“We look forward to working with leaders of both parties in the Legislature and with the administration to help us grow the economy, improve our criminal justice system and keep Pennsylvania No. 1 for second chances.” 

Pennsylvania’s business community and groups from the right and left came together to call for prioritizing justice reforms that help returning citizens find jobs in an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Justice Action Network’s Holly Harris and leaders from the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation and Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania encouraged legislators to adopt reforms to the state’s occupational licensing and probation systems, and access to expungement.

“No one should profit from criminal activity. But to take somebody’s goods and deprive them before there’s been due process delivered is an injustice.”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a package of bills this week that will significantly reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture procedures. House Bills 4001 and 4002 and Senate Bill 2 will require the government to notify a person that their property has been seized, return unjustified forfeited property within 14 days, delay forfeiture in cases involving controlled substances, and obtain a conviction before property can be permanently forfeited to the state in most cases. These reforms, championed by Senator Peter Lucido, follow a 2015 change to requirements for evidence and transparency, and a 2016 law that removed a bond requirement for people challenging a forfeiture.

“This report shows that judges are respecting the rights of the accused by releasing eligible pretrial defendants from jail without increasing the threat to public safety.” 

Chief Judge Timothy Evans of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, released a report this week on the effects of pretrial reforms instituted in 2017. The Cook County Jail population dropped by more than 1,600 and the average bound amount fell from $5,000 to $1,000. At the same time, violent crime in Chicago decreased by 8% and nearly 90% of those released had not been charged with a new crime during the 15-month period covered by the study. 

“This is a great opportunity for individuals to get training of a skill for employment, not in a low level or entry level type job, but one where their training and certification opens up new opportunities at a much higher level for them.”

The Culinary Academy, a partnership between the Northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board, the Sawyer County Jail, Hayward Senior Resource Center, and the Sawyer County Criminal Justice Programs, provides training for incarcerated people in a variety of skills related to the culinary industry. Participants learn about food preparation, nutrition, hospitality, customer service, and menu preparation, and receive their ServSafe certification.

Federal Clean Slate Legislation, and the news in criminal justice this week

“The Clean Slate Act would ensure that people who pay their debt to society and stay on the straight and narrow can earn a second shot at a better life.”

Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) introduced the Clean Slate Act this week, which would automatically seal the federal records of people convicted of drug possession or any nonviolent offense involving marijuana. The bipartisan bill has been endorsed by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and FreedomWorks. CAP’s Rebecca Vallas said the Clean Slate Act “would help people get back to work, lift families out of poverty and interrupt the cycle of economic instability and recidivism trapping countless individuals and families in the justice system today.”  Expungement also gained steam in Wisconsin: Assembly Bill 33, the “Pathways to Employment” legislation, advanced through House and Senate committees and is expected to be scheduled for floor votes in both chambers in May.

“There is more work to be done, but this is a great sign that we are on the right path.”

New numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed a continued decline in prison populations, down to 1.49 million from a peak in 2009 of 1.62 million. Five states—New York, New Jersey, Alaska, Connecticut and Vermont—have reduced their prison population by at least 30% in the past twenty years. Not all states have seen declines—Kentucky’s state inmate population increased by 2.3% between 2016 and 2017, and Utah saw an increase of 4.3% in that time frame.

“If our policies make a second chance harder, especially in a way that is disproportional by economic status, they need to change.”

Starting this month, New York and Pennsylvania will no longer automatically suspend driver’s licenses for people convicted of drug crimes. Pennsylvania suspended nearly 20,000 licenses each year for non-driving offenses, and between 2009 and 2015, New York suspended nearly 180,000 licenses for drug crimes unrelated to driving. In their resolution opposing federal license suspension requirements, New York legislatures said the policy imposed “an undue barrier in the ability of individuals convicted of such crimes to find and maintain employment and take part in the activities of daily living.”

“This is the first step of turning the Department of Warehousing back into the Department of Corrections.”

State economists estimated this week that the Florida First Step Act, sponsored by Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), could result in $860.4 million in savings in its first five years. The most significant cost savings would come from a decrease in mandatory time-served threshold from 85% to 65% of sentences for certain first-time, non-violent offenses. Crime in Florida is at a 55-year low, but the state’s prison population is at an all-time high of 96,000 people, and costs $2.4 billion per year.

“If people don’t have stable housing when they get out, they’re much more likely to go back. Housing is the key to understanding the recidivism puzzle.”

Atlanta’s Metro Reentry Facility is believed to be the first transitional state prison for those slated for release within 18 months. To date, 350 men have been enrolled in the program, which provides intensive counseling, vocational training and housing support. Officials from the Georgia Department of Corrections also work with soon-to-be-released people to reconnect with family members, find housing, get a driver’s license and open a bank account.

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.