Wisconsin

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.

Restorative Justice for Veterans, and the news in criminal justice this week

“I’ve been able to continue to be a husband to my wife and father to my children. If it wasn’t for these intervention options, I know exactly where I’d be: I’d be in jail.” 

Minnesota’s Veterans Defense Project unveiled new legislation at a forum this week to create a restorative justice program for veterans across the state. The Veterans Restorative Justice Act would allow participants in the program enter a plea, but have charges dismissed after completion of the terms of their probation. Governor Tim Walz made a surprise appearance at the forum to endorse the legislation, telling attendees “I want to make it very clear that we stand 100 percent with you. The governor’s office is here to make sure this gets done.”   

“Research shows that if a person has stable housing, they are less likely to commit a new crime and end up behind bars.”

“Hope for Success: Returning Home,” a new report from Connecticut’s Commission on Equity and Opportunity Reentry Working Group, analyzed housing challenges for returning citizens and proposed both legislative and administrative remedies. The group found that stable housing would increase public safety, save money, and strengthen family reunification. Suggestions included reducing restrictions for public housing for those with criminal records, creating stronger coordination and data integration policies between corrections and housing authorities, and adopting Clean Slate legislation.

“Every day is hard, very hard. I wake up and I look around and I don’t understand why I am here.”

A lawsuit filed this week by the Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York alleges that incarcerated people with mental illness are being held for months past their release dates because of a lack of mental health-focused housing facilities. The state labels the men seeking class-action status in the lawsuit as ‘releasees,’ and claims that they are in residential treatment facilities, but the lawsuit says the men are still housed in prisons, held in cells, required to wear inmate uniforms, and “remain prisoners in every respect.” Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers have allocated funds to create 6,000 new units by 2021, but advocates say there is a need for tens of thousands of additional supportive housing units, and existing facilities are struggling to stay open.   

“Mississippians want to combat drug trafficking. But we also respect the property rights of innocent owners, and we expect our government to as well.”

In the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi Justice Institute Director Aaron Rice argued against reauthorizing administrative forfeiture, which the legislature allowed to expire last year. While proponents claimed that forfeited assets were critical in combatting drug trafficking, a review of the state’s forfeiture database found trivial personal valuables, including an Apple watch, a power drill, and as little as $50 in cash. Earlier this week, representatives from conservative organizations including FreedomWorks, Right on Crime, and the American Conservative Union wrote to Governor Phil Bryant urging him to oppose the reinstatement of administrative forfeiture.

“In Wisconsin, mass supervision drives mass incarceration.”

Wisconsin’s parole supervision rate is 1.5 times higher than the national average, and according to analysis from the Columbia University Justice Lab, the state’s probation and parole systems are a significant driver of the state’s incarceration rate. Conditions of supervision are often vague, and the fees associated with electronic monitoring can add up to more than $700 per month. More than 36% of the state’s prison admissions in 2017 were people incarcerated for technical revocations. Researchers recommended closing the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, which houses people with parole and probation violations, and emphasizing community corrections.



Bipartisan Sentencing Reform in Oklahoma, and the news in criminal justice this week

“I look forward to working with members of both parties to find not Democratic or Republic solutions, but Oklahoma solutions to the issues facing this state. This bill will be a great step in that direction.”
 
Oklahoma House Bill 1269, which would allow recently-passed sentencing reforms to be applied retroactively, was introduced this week by Representatives Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) and Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City). State Question 780 reclassified several nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, but only applied to those charged after July 1, 2017. According to an estimate from Open Justice Oklahoma, 2,500-3,000 people could be immediately eligible for reduced sentences if HB 1269 is adopted.
 
“There are still grave concerns. This just emphasizes to us that the state of Wisconsin has to move these kids out (of the facilities).”
 
The first report from court-appointed monitor Teresa Abreu shows Wisconsin’s juvenile facilities continue to face “serious, chronic, and dangerous” staffing shortages. Abreu reported that guards at Lincoln Hills School (LHS) and Copper Lake School (CLS) continue to use pepper spray to subdue people when lesser means could have been used, and individuals are sometimes placed in solitary confinement for more than seven days. The report does point to some areas of improvement, including the decreased use of physical restraints and strip searches. Abreu also noted that the Wisconsin Division of Juvenile Corrections Director and LHS/CLS Superintendent were both receptive to her recommendations. 
 
“The historic decline demonstrates that common-sense criminal justice reforms work and bolsters the case for expanding reforms while ensuring the safety of all citizens.”
 
From 2017 to 2018, Pennsylvania’s state corrections population saw its biggest-ever decrease, dropping from 48,438 to 47,370. 617 fewer people were newly admitted to state prisons, while 575 fewer were returned for parole violations. Since the state passed a Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2012, the prison population has declined by more than 7.4%. “We are locking up fewer people while crime rates continue to decline,” noted the Commonwealth Foundation’s Nathan Benefield. “It’s time for lawmakers to build on this momentum and advance reforms that improve sentencing and parole.” 
 
“It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

Newly-elected judges in Harris County have approved a plan that would allow 85% of those arrested for misdemeanors to be automatically released on no-cash bonds. The new court protocols are a proposed foundation for the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the county’s bail practices, and must be reviewed by a federal judge. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a defendant in the lawsuit, welcomed the proposed settlement, saying “too many jail beds are occupied by nonviolent people who can be safely released to return home to support their families while they await trial.”  
 
“I want to add to my portfolio of programs that are sustainable…do justice and serve the community. That’s the essence of criminal justice reform.”
 
Pima County’s Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program was highlighted at this week’s winter meeting of the Major County Prosecutor’s Council. The program, in place since 2011, allows people to opt into an intensive supervision, treatment and support program rather than being sentenced to prison. The University of Arizona estimated that the program had saved $6 million over the course of four years, and that the program cost less than half as much as sending a person to prison. Attendees, including district and county attorneys from Baltimore, New York, Seattle, and Denver, met to discuss strategies to assist in criminal justice reform at the local level.  

Michigan bans the box, and the news in criminal justice this week

“I think it’s important to be a role model. If you’re going to advocate for others to do it, we should be doing it ourselves.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced that the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs had removed all criminal history questions from licensing applications, unless required by federal or state law. He also signed an executive directive that prevents state departments from asking job seekers about their criminal history on their initial applications. Snyder said he hoped the new policies would spur private employers to hire people with criminal records. The Mackinac Center’s Jarret Skorup predicted the policies “will increase economic opportunity and enhance public safety by encouraging dignified work.”

“We believe that a cornerstone of the effort to reduce recidivism rests upon ensuring that, upon their release, inmates have the tools they need to succeed as self-sufficient and independent citizens…”

The Pennsylvania State Agency Financial Exchange, or PA $AFE, is a partnership of the Department of Corrections and Department of Banking and Securities to help provide returning citizens with financial education. The pilot program is designed to be scalable and sustainable and provide up-to-date, real-world training. In evaluating the program, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Banking and Securities Secretary Robin Wiessmann said they were tracking outcome measurements, including differences in recidivism rates, successful employment, and financial engagement, including opening a bank account or starting a business.

“It’s absolutely appropriate for state government to put restraints on other governments, so they can’t take life, liberty, or property away from folks.”

California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation this week that prohibits cities from charging residents for their own prosecutions. In a series written last year, the Desert Sun found the cities of Indio and Coachella had charged residents thousands of dollars in prosecution fees,  often for minor infractions. Assemblymember Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley) called the practice “policing for profit,” and his cosponsor Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) said the fees imposed an undue burden on low-income residents.

“We lock up too many people for too long, and it’s about time that we change the dynamics. I apologize for that, I want to be on the front end for changing that.”

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson apologized for his role in what he called the “hysteria” of locking people up. Thompson was a lead sponsor of so-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws in 1997, and oversaw the expansion of the state’s prison system. Currently, 23,500 people are held in Wisconsin’s prisons, and the state is studying plans for a new $300 million facility.  Thompson voiced support for substance abuse treatment and job training for people who are incarcerated, saying it could also help the state’s worker shortage.

“These post-implementation analyses reveal that the CJRA had an immediate and sizeable impact on summons issuance in New York City. Further, the intended outcome of a dramatic reduction in the volume of warrants issued in criminal court was achieved.”

John Jay College’s Misdemeanor Justice Project released a report this week on the implementation of the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), which created the presumption that certain low-level offenses would result in a civil, rather than criminal, summons. In 2016, the year the CJRA was passed, the majority of criminal summonses in New York City were for public urination, public drinking, littering, noise offense or parks rules offenses. In the six months following implementation 89% of summonses for those five offenses were civil, and the city saw a 94% decrease in warrants for CJRA-eligible offenses.

Second Chance Month, and the news in criminal justice this week

“We encourage expanded opportunities for those who have worked to overcome bad decisions earlier in life and emphasize our belief in second chance for those who are willing to work hard to turn their lives around.”

President Trump designated April 2018 “Second Chance Month,” and urged federal, state and local corrections systems to implement evidence-based programs that focus on job training, mentoring, mental health treatment, and addiction treatment. Similar proclamations have been introduced in the Senate by Republican Rob Portman and in the house by Democrat Tony Cardenas, and April 2018 has been declared Second Chance Month in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Alabama, Michigan, Texas, Minnesota, the District of Columbia, and the city of Minneapolis.

“The program humanizes incarcerated people and allows them to be seen—both by prison staff, and themselves—as valuable members of the communities to which they belong.”

A new pilot program in New York prisons trains incarcerated people to act as emergency responders for overdose victims. State correctional and public health authorities educate incarcerated people on the proper use of naloxone, and on their rights as “Good Samaritans,” and equip them with naloxone kits upon release.

“Tennesseans should not have their property seized without being charged with, or convicted of a crime.”

The Tennessee Senate unanimously passed a bill to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture system, requiring formal notice of a property seizure or forfeiture-warrant hearing, clarifying the legal process to seek the return of seized property, and holding agencies responsible for attorneys’ fees in cases where they are found to have wrongly seized assets. This is the latest in a series of civil asset forfeiture reforms undertaken at the state level, including those passed this year in Idaho, Wisconsin and Kansas. Lawmakers in Michigan are expected to take up reforms when they return from spring break.

“Everything about this unit is supposed to replicate life more on the outside than a jail does, to prepare them for reentry by giving them some of the skill sets they didn’t have.”

The Middlesex, Massachusetts House of Correction’s new initiative, supported by the Vera Institute, is focused on changing the trajectory for young adult offenders. Inside the People Achieving Change Together (“PACT”) Unit, young adult inmates have greater freedom and access to family members, meet with therapists and anger-management specialists, and report for work every day.

“They keep a close eye on their clients, but in many places, no one is keeping a close eye on them.”

In the New York Times, Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan examined the extraordinary powers and lax regulation of the $2 billion bail bond industry. They found complaints of kidnapping, extortion, forged property liens, theft and embezzlement that rarely resulted in meaningful punishment for the bail bond agents. This remarkable piece includes particularly shocking stories of people, families, and their liberty impacted by this industry, and don’t miss what happened to Christopher Franklin in North Carolina.

Bail reform in Delaware, and the news in criminal justice this week

“The amount of money in your pocket isn’t what determines whether you’re languishing in jail.”

Bail reform legislation passed the Delaware House and Senate this week and is expected to be signed by Governor Carney. The bill, which passed despite opposition from the bail bond industry, would introduce risk-assessment tools and encourage the use of pretrial release conditions rather than jail.

“We’re convinced juvenile justice reform is the right answer for Tennessee.”

Following the release of the Tennessee Juvenile Justice Task Force report, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris called for significant reforms, starting this year. The task force, which examined the state’s juvenile justice system and best practices from states who have already implemented reforms, recommended a host of policies to prevent juvenile system involvement, focus system resources on high-risk individuals, and provide greater oversight and accountability.

“It’s a second chance. I think we’re proving ourselves out there to be pretty solid workers.”

With a national unemployment rate of 4.1%, and some local rates closer to 2%, employers are increasingly open to workers with criminal records. An analysis of job-market data by Burning Glass Technologies showed a decline in job postings requiring criminal background checks, from 8.9% in 2014 to 7.9% in 2016. Steady, meaningful employment for those with a record can not only fulfill employer needs, boosting our economy, but it can stop the cycle of recidivism in its tracks.

“Imprisonment in many states and the nation as a whole has long since passed the point of diminishing returns.”

Analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that, between 2008 and 2016, 35 states cut their crime and imprisonment rates simultaneously;  21 of those states showed double-digit declines in both rates. In the twelve states where imprisonment rates grew, crime rates fell more slowly, on average, than in states with the largest declines in imprisonment. 

"We’re looking at the impact to community and the economy by not trying to lock everybody up."

Florida’s Legislature is considering more and more bills that will right-size their prison system and bring more opportunities to the state to cut crime and cut taxpayer costs. Bipartisan teams of legislative leaders are looking at updating Florida’s nation-lagging felony theft laws, as well as reforms to mandatory minimums and pretrial practices, issues with broad bipartisan support from Florida’s voters as well.