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2013 A Busy Year for Sentencing Reforms in 31 States

Closing a few prisons won’t be enough for significantly reduce the U.S. prison population of more than 1.5 million men and women, according to a report from the Sentencing Project. Real reductions argues the Washington, D.C. advocacy group, will only happen with serious legislatives reforms to sentencing policies and practices nationwide.

 “The scale of the nation’s correctional population results from a mix of crime rates and legislative and administrative policies that vary by state,” said the report, which focuses on sentencing reforms enacted in 2013. “Lawmakers have cited the growth in state corrections spending at the expense of other priories as a reason to change sentencing policies and practices.”

To build on modest declines in the prison population achieved over the past few years and to correct some of the most detrimental sentencing policies, lawmakers in 31 states approved 47 criminal justice reforms in 2013, the report said, “that may help to reduce the prison population, improve juvenile justice outcomes, and eliminate the barriers that marginalize persons with prior convictions.”

Six states, including Hawaii, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont, expanded alternatives to incarceration for certain drug offenses. In Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is now legal, state legislators passed SB250, which requires courts to “exhaust alternative sentencing options” for certain drug defendants and requires several forms of treatment for drug abuse before defendants are sent to prison.

Kansas, as did South Dakota and Oregon, created reforms to get probationers and parolees off community supervision earlier, thereby reducing the numbers of technical violators in prison. Under HB2170, Kansas lawmakers made early discharge possible for low-risk probationers who have paid their restitution in full and complied with the terms of community supervision for 12 months. And certain sex offenders can now earn good time while incarcerated to get post-release supervision faster.

Georgia and Nebraska, meanwhile, were highlighted in the report for enacting “comprehensive juvenile justice measure that included provisions to expand alternatives to incarceration for certain youth.” In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, eight states – Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and Utah – all modified juvenile sentencing guidelines.         

And in California, the Board of Parole Hearings is now required to conduct release hearing for certain individuals convicted of certain crimes before they turned 18, under SB260.

 “The measure requires the board, in reviewing in prisoner’s suitability for parole, to give weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults,” the report said.

Other notable justice reforms included “ban the box” policies – efforts to limit of prohibit inquiries of a job applicant’s criminal history – being adopted in Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island and California.

Oregon passed SB463 – a measure patterned after legislation in Iowa – which requires the state’s Criminal Justice Commission, upon legislative request, to prepare racial impact statements regarding any proposed law or modifications to criminal justice policy.

Maryland joined 17 other states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty.

 “During 2013, lawmakers enacted a number of legislative changes to address the high rate of incarceration at the state level,” the Sentencing Project concluded. “Documented changes in sentencing policy and practice over a number of years demonstrate that officials can adopt initiatives targeted to reduce state prison populations without compromising public safety.”

Source: The state of Sentencing 2013: Developments in Policy and Practice, The Sentencing Project, January 2014, 

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