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Growing Support for Justice Reform in Louisiana, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Criminal justice reform is proof of the good that can happen when we come together and put people over politics.”

New polling from Louisiana State University shows growing support for criminal justice reform, particularly among Republicans and Independents. The results reveal that 70% of those surveyed approve of the state’s justice reforms, up from 61% in 2018. Support increased by 14 points for Republicans and by 12 points for Independents. The poll results point to continuing concerns among Louisianans—only 32% believe the current system is fair, or that it keeps communities safe. “Criminal justice reform is working in our state just as it has in other Southern state,” Governor John Bel Edwards noted in a response to the poll results, “and we have every reason to believe that the improvements will continue.” 

“In the end, citizens have a right to know how their county criminal justice system is performing, and the officials who operate it have a duty to ensure they’re making decisions based on objective data.” 

Measures for Justice Executive Director Amy Bach highlighted the difficulties in evaluating and reforming the justice system at the local level. Across more than 3,000 counties, there are no uniform expectations for collecting or reporting access to diversion programs, license suspensions and revocations, or racial and socioeconomic disparities. Bach suggests states follow Florida’s lead, and calls their recently-increased data collection requirements and establishment of a statewide searchable database “a huge win for transparency and informed policymaking.” And in the Marshall Project, Nicole Lewis looks at the process of implementation in Florida, where the law takes effect statewide on July 1.  

“We want to have folks that are able to come back into society and become productive family members, productive members of the community and even productive taxpayers.”

Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility is partnering with the Iowa Association of Councils of Government and Homes for Iowa, Inc. to teach incarcerated people trade skills and create low-cost homes for rural Iowans. In the program, modeled on South Dakota’s Governor’s House Program, trainees will help construct two- to three-bedroom homes that can be shipped throughout the state. Newton Correctional Facility also offers computing skills courses and trade apprenticeships, and partners with Grinnell College on secondary education classes. 

“The only way to stop this rule from going into effect is to send the administration a clear message that their proposed changes to federal hiring are regressive, unacceptable, and will hurt families and communities across America.”

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management proposed a new rule that would require federal job applicants to reveal whether they have participated in a diversion program meant to avoid a criminal conviction. “The intention of using a diversionary program is just as it sounds: to divert individuals from the justice system and provide correctional measures without incurring the impact of a criminal conviction,” noted FreedomWorks’ Sarah Anderson. “Requiring disclosure of participation in such a program runs counter to its very intention.” The public comment period for the change runs through Tuesday, April 23; you can submit a comment here.

“I am voting yes because I have not given up on the young people, children of Oregon, my Oregon, who have gotten themselves into trouble.”

The Oregon State Senate voted this week to end the automatic referral of juveniles facing certain serious charges to adult court. The referrals were required under Measure 11, passed in 1994, which established mandatory minimum sentences and high bail for offenses including murder, robbery, and assault. Senate Bill 1008 would also bar life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders and establish “second look” hearings for juveniles convicted of Measure 11 crimes who have served at least half of their sentences. The bill passed by a vote of 20-10, narrowly meeting the requirement of 2/3 majority to amend a voter-approved law.

 

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.

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.

Automatic Expungement in Utah, and the news in criminal justice this week

“If you do everything you’re asked to do, and jump through all the hoops, there ought to be a mechanism that allows you to get your life back on track.”

With unanimous votes in both the House and Senate, Utah legislators passed House Bill 431, The Expungement Act of 2019. The bill would allow for automatic expungement of certain criminal records after a set period of five to seven years, depending on the offense. H.B. 431 is expected to be signed by Governor Gary Herbert, making Utah the second state in the country to pass automatic expungement legislation.  “When we equip individuals with the tools they need to turn their lives around,” argued former U.S. Attorney and Utahn Brett Tolman, “we are smarter and safer as a state and a country.”

“The Fair Chance Act allows qualified people with criminal records to get their foot in the door and be judged by their merit, not a past conviction.”

At a joint hearing of House Oversight and Reform subcommittees this week, lawmakers heard from the sponsors of H.R. 1076, The Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act. The bill would prohibit agencies and their contractors from asking about an applicant’s criminal record until a conditional offer of employment has been extended. Thirty-three states and nearly 150 cities and counties have implemented some version of ban-the-box policies. House sponsors Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Doug Collins (R-GA) were joined at the hearing by Senate sponsors Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Johnson (R-WI), as well as the Justice Action Network’s Holly Harris and Teresa Hodge, Co-Founder and CEO of R3 Score Technologies.

“This bill is a testament to finding agreement, talking through practical challenges, and raising the standard to ensure our citizens have more protections in place.”

Arkansas Senate Bill 308, which requires a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited by the state, passed unanimously in both chambers. Senator Majority Leader Bart Hester and Representative Austin McCollum championed the issue, and Governor Asa Hutchinson is expected to sign the bill into law. With his signature, Arkansas will join the ranks of states like New Mexico, Ohio, and Connecticut to dramatically restrict civil asset forfeiture. Meanwhile, in Michigan, MLive.com broke down the state police’s asset forfeiture report, detailing what was seized, how property was disposed, and how the income from assets was spent.

“It appears that the same bureaucrats that fought the First Step Act at every opportunity are trying to starve it to death through the budget process...”  

President Trump’s 2020 budget request contained $14 million for the development of pilot programs for people who are incarcerated, well short of the $75 million annual expenditure described in the First Step Act. The White House did not indicate how the administration planned to implement the law’s expansion of programs for education, career and technical training, substance abuse treatment or halfway houses. While Congress is responsible for allocating funding, and both houses have generally ignored presidential budget requests, advocates were concerned that the proposal fell short of a full-throated implementation of the law.

“It’s obviously an equity issue. They’re stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty.”

Legislators in Oregon are debating House Bill 2614, which would end the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees and traffic tickets. The Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles issued more than 76,000 license suspensions in 2017 alone. Representative Jeff Barker, who is sponsoring the bill with House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, said the current system impacts those who can’t afford to pay fines, and “they get into a downward spiral that they can’t get out of.”

Commutations in Oklahoma, and the news in criminal justice this week

“It’s been a transformation, and we’re moving in the right direction.”

In fiscal year 2019, Oklahoma has a more than fivefold increase in commutations granted by the Parole and Pardon Board, due in part to a change in the mindset of the board members. “We are beginning to understand and make better decisions based on facts, data and research rather than emotion, fear and anger,” said board member and former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele. Governor Kevin Stitt announced new appointments to the Pardon and Parole Board this week, including Adam Luck, who previously served as Oklahoma State Director for Right on Crime.  

“If you are a dealer, this does not protect you. This protects the addicted.”

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha proposed legislation this week that would classify the possession of small amounts of narcotics as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is already classified as a misdemeanor in the state. Neronha’s proposal would also lower the maximum sentence for simple possession from three years to one year in prison. Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey agreed to sponsor the legislation.

“It is very upsetting that defendants are in jail and are not able to access our resources as timely as the court requires and, more importantly, as is appropriate for their needs and their rights.”

According to analysis by the Oregonian, state courts, corrections and hospital officials routinely fail to get people with mental illness into treatment within a court-ordered seven day timeline. Researchers found more than 200 incidents of delay, some lasting more than a month. The reporting revealed that 63% of those experiencing extended delays had been charged with misdemeanors and faced little to no jail time if convicted.  

“Social media has the potential to help agencies manage their own reputation and contact community members directly to bolster community-police relations.”

The Urban Institute and the International Association of Chiefs of Policed partnered on a national collection of social media engagement from law enforcement agencies and social media postings that mentioned police. In addition, 539 agencies across 48 states also participated in a survey on their use of social media. Using this data, researchers created a social media guidebook and model policies for law enforcement.

“With the efforts of the criminal justice reform community pushing from all sides of the political aisle, Congress finally broke the logjam and passed meaningful reform.”

In an essay for the Yale Law Journal, Georgetown University Law Center Professor Shon Hopwood described the effort to pass the First Step Act, crediting a wide variety of groups on the right and left, including the NAACP, FAMM, Prison Fellowship, #cut50, Right on Crime, FreedomWorks and the American Conservative Union. Hopwood also lays out a set of principles for evaluating future reforms, suggesting advocates evaluate whether the bill would increase fairness and public safety, whether it is supported by those who would be directly affected, and whether there is a realistic chance of better alternatives in the near future, among other factors.

Debt and Incarceration, and the news in criminal justice this week

“But what we’re seeing in these situations is that not only are the poor in the United States treated differently than people with means, but that the courts are actually aggravating and perpetuating poverty.”

Corinth, Mississippi is the subject of a New York Times investigation into the cycle of debt and incarceration, and the ways fines and fees are used to finance the justice system. Prior to a settlement last fall, defendants who were unable to pay fines and fees could reduce their debt by $25 for each day they spent in the Alcorn County Jail. The settlement grants additional time for people to pay fines and fees, and does not allow imprisonment for people who are unable to pay. The problem is not limited to Mississippi, or to criminal infractions—Oregon courts have issued significant fines to parents whose children are truant, and Louisiana’s pretrial diversion laws allow people with traffic offenses to pay quickly and avoid a record, while those who cannot pay may end up with additional court fees.

“There’s really no guidance for future courts, for future clemency request, for future governors making requests, as to why certain ones might get blocked and certain ones won’t.”

The California Supreme Court blocked ten clemency actions from then-Governor Jerry Brown, the first time since 1930 that it had rejected executive pardons or commutation requests. Those individuals will now have to reapply for clemency from Governor Gavin Newsom. And in The New Republic, Matt Ford looks at grants of clemency and questions why certain governors aren’t pardoning more incarcerated people. Ford suggests that governors could fast-track pardons and commutations for elderly prisoners, who are expected to comprise 30% of state prison populations by 2030.

“We could do all this punishment all day. But then they’re still going to come out into the neighborhood. We’re just trying to prepare somebody to re-enter society.”

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Gary McFadden closed the county jail’s disciplinary detention unit, which had been used to keep juvenile offenders in solitary confinement. Incarcerated youth are now let out of the cells for at least seven hours per day; have access to phones, television, the library, and family visits; and can attend classes. Sheriff McFadden also said he plans to restore in-person visits with family members and friends, which the previous sheriff had restricted to video monitors.

“It was in this context that Dayton waded in: innovating, trying, failing, and trying again. And while nobody will tell you that the problem is solved, our community has made enormous strides.”

One of the cities hardest hit by the opioid crisis, Dayton, Ohio has become a model for its creative, collaborative, and compassionate response.Since 2011, Dayton’s Montgomery County has had one of the highest rates of overdose fatalities in the state; but fatalities were down 65% in 2018 as compared to the same time period in 2017. A report from the Center for American Progress analyzed key elements of the city’s response, including rapid and targeted data collection and use, increased access to treatment, and a law enforcement strategy focused on support and prevention rather than criminalization.

“It raises the spirit of the community as its residents strengthen their opportunities for better jobs and better housing.”

Leavenworth, Kansas Mayor Jermaine Wilson and Leavenworth County Attorney announced a new 60-day expungement assistance program this week. Prosecutors and volunteer attorneys will review cases, answer questions about eligibility, and help people apply for fee waivers. Wilson, who was incarcerated for three years, had his record expunged in 2015, was elected to the city commission in 2017, and was unanimously chosen by the commission to serve as mayor on Tuesday.