Probation

First Step Act Implementation, and the news in criminal justice this week

“It’s a long overdue change.” 

Nearly 3,100 people are scheduled to be released from federal prisons, halfway houses or home confinement this week as a result of the First Step Act’s “good time” credit changes. Justice Department officials also unveiled a new risk and needs assessment to help assign recidivism reduction programming. And in the New York Times, U.S. District Court Judge Robin Rosenberg wrote about the process of freeing Robert Clarence Potts III, who was sentenced to life in prison for drug and weapons charges. During his 20 years in prison, Potts overcame addiction, took courses in personal growth and responsible thinking, and studied software and the law. As a result of the First Step Act, Potts was able to seek a sentence reduction, and Rosenberg was able to order his release to a residential re-entry center. 

“It’s sort of a testament to the fact that we don’t need to rely on incarceration to live in a city that’s safe.” 

 According to new data from the New York City Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, there were nearly 20% fewer jail admissions in fiscal 2019 than in 2018. City officials attributed the drop in jail admissions to decreased crime, the decriminalization of marijuana, and bail reform. The city’s jail incarceration rate is now the lowest since 1978, but there are still ongoing concerns: more people are being admitted to jail for violating state parole, and individuals on parole are staying in jail twice as long as those facing similar charges. Racial disparities in the city’s jail population have also persisted—86.3% of those in jail in 2018 were African-American or Hispanic. 

“Is it financially prudent and morally responsible to fund a co-equal branch of government on the backs of a few who are often the poorest and least fortunate members of our society?”

After a legislative audit found widespread irregularities in pretrial diversion programs and revenues, Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson asked prosecutors to report their income from diversion programs to the research arm of the state Supreme Court. The results showed variation across the state—a DWI dismissal, which isn’t offered in every jurisdiction, costs $2,100 in St. Tammany Parish and $1,000 in East Baton Rouge. And while some District Attorney’s offices showed little revenue from pretrial interventions, Rapides Parish brought in more than $2 million per year. Internal documents showed the Rapides Parish diversion fees paid for conferences, postage, office supplies, and nearly $90,000 in unitemized “fringe” expenditures.

“Technical violations account for almost 1 in 4 admissions to state prison and $2.8 billion in annual incarceration costs.”

An issue brief from the Pew Charitable Trusts examines reforms implemented through Justice Reinvestment Initiatives to address high rates of technical revocations for people on probation. The authors identified four categories of reform policies: tailoring supervision strategies toward behavioral change for high-risk supervisees, providing incentives for people on supervision, using administrative responses to violations, and capping or reducing jail or prison time for violations and limiting the use of incarceration for technical violations. They also highlighted model policies, including Utah’s earned credits toward discharge from parole or probation, and Georgia’s requirement of evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism.

“What we do is find athletes who are passionate about justice reform issues and work with them to help amplify their voices.”

The Justice Action Network partnered with University of Kentucky standout and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rookie Benny Snell, Jr. to host system-impacted children at a football camp in Westerville, Ohio this week. Nearly 200 kids, aged 6-16, participated in the camp, which was held at Snell’s alma mater, Westerville Central High School. The Justice Action Network worked with groups, including the Boys and Girls Club, to identify kids whose families had been involved in the criminal justice system.

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.

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.”

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.

 

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.

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.

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.