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Sentencing Project Releases Report on Sentencing Policy and Practice

by Matt Clarke

In February 2009, The Sentencing Project released a report on developments in sentencing policies and practices in 2008. The report notes that, with 2.3 million prisoners, 5 million citizens on parole or probation and a worldwide economic crisis, sentencing reforms to reduce the prison population have gained in importance. This is easily understood: “since 1990, state corrections expenditures have grown by an average of 7.5% per year” making it “a substantial contributor to the budget problems faced in many states.”

Arizona enacted SB 1476, allowing the Adult Probation Services of a county to retain up to 40% of the savings asso-ciated with a reduction in probation revocations. Kentucky, with HB 406, permitted certain prisoners within 180 days of release to be incarcerated at home, allowed persons incarcerated due to technical parole violations to receive credit for time spent on parole and made prisoners completing drug or education programs eligible for a 90-day earned discharge credit. With SB 2136, Mississippi reduced the percentage of a sentence a prisoner convicted of certain nonviolent crimes had to serve and, with HB 494, allowed compassionate parole for terminally-ill prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes regardless of amount of time served.

Local initiatives passed in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Hawaii County, Hawaii declaring marijuana the lowest law en-forcement priority. Louisiana’s HB 292 allowed a drug conviction to be set aside and prosecution dismissed upon completion of a drug courts diversion program.
Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly passed Question 2, decriminalizing possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and making it subject to a $100 civil fine. New Jersey passed AB 1770, allowing special pro-bation for some drug defendants otherwise ineligible for probation and permitting the reduction of fines for financial hardship and reduction of special probation times for exemplary progress. Vermont passed HB 859, expanding the Intensive Sub-stance Abuse Program, community-based substance abuse services for persons under supervision and a authorizing a fea-sibility study of expanding drug courts statewide. It also allows the prison system to petition a court to reduce a prison sen-tence to probation for successful progress and limits probation officers’ caseloads.

Connecticut (HB 5933), Iowa (HF 2393) and Illinois (SB 2476) passed legislation establishing methods to study the potential impact of legislation and policy changes on ethnic and racial minorities. Iowa also required grant applications to state agencies to include an impact assessment. Wisconsin’s governor issued Executive Order 251 creating a Racial Dis-parities Oversight Commission, establishing methods to monitor criminal justice practices for disparate impact and direct-ing the Office of Justice Administration to study the role of prosecutorial discretion in creating racial and ethnic dispropor-tionalities.

Kentucky passed SJR 80 creating a subcommittee to study the efforts of other states in reforming their penal codes with the intent of reducing prison overcrowding by modifying the penal code’s sentencing scheme for nonviolent crimes. South Carolina passed a similar act, S 144. With HB 4, Pennsylvania authorized sentencing courts to allow a conditional minimum sentence, accelerating the release of certain prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes upon completion of cer-tain programs.

Kentucky’s governor rescinded essay submission, three character reference and application fee requirements for citi-zens seeking voting rights restoration following a felony conviction. Colorado passed SB 66 allowing juveniles facing prosecution for certain crimes formerly requiring prosecution as an adult to plead guilty to a Class 2 felony and be incar-cerated in the Youthful Offender System. Utah’s HB 86 appropriated $150,000 to be used for postsecondary education in prisons.

The report recommended that states reconsider overly harsh sentencing policies--including mandatory minimums, “truth-in-sentencing” and life without parole. It suggested the expansion of incarceration alternatives and sentencing diver-sion programs, including community-based treatment and training programs. It recommended the revision of parole and probation revocation procedures to include intermediate sanctions and other alternatives to incarceration.
It said that pa-role eligibility criteria should be revised to reduce unnecessarily lengthy times served and provide incentives for program participation. It stated that states should expand eligibility for proven diversion and treatment programs and should espe-cially reconsider restrictions excluding persons with violent, repeat or non-drug crimes. However these haphazard and piecemeal efforts are unlikely to change the steady exponential growth of the nation’s prison population which require sig-nificant sentencing reform to put a dent in the prison and jail population. See: The State of Sentencing 2008 by Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project - February 2009.

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