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State Sentencing Reforms Doing Little to Reduce Nation’s Prison Population

by Lonnie Burton

With almost 7 million people under some sort of correctional supervision, including probation and parole, the United States continues to lead the world in terms of tough-on-crime policies and incarceration rates. Although there have been slight declines in the U.S. prison population since 2010, the number of people held in prisons, jails and other detention facilities remains extremely high.

A recent study by The Sentencing Project, a research organization based in Washington, D.C., entitled “The State of Sentencing 2015: Developments in Policy and Practice,” noted that punitive sentencing practices like mandatory minimums, habitual offender laws, three strikes legislation and restrictions in sentence reduction policies have resulted in a national prison and jail population of 2.2 million. Another 4.7 million people are being monitored on probation or parole.

The study found that in 2015, lawmakers in at least 30 states passed legislation that may contribute to a further decline in the nation’s prison population as well as minimize the collateral consequences of criminal convictions. Among the changes highlighted in the report:

• Three states (MD, OK and ND) passed mandatory sentencing reform, allowing trial judges to depart from mandatory minimums under certain circumstances, including the defendant’s character and chances of rehabilitation.

• Six states (AR, CT, GA, MT, TX and UT) made it less likely that parolees will be returned to prison for technical violations.

• Fourteen states either restored the voting rights of ex-felons, removed bans on food and financial assistance for drug offenders or made it illegal for prospective employers to ask about prior felony convictions – i.e., “Ban the Box” legislation.

• Ten states adopted juvenile justice reforms in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life sentences for defendants who committed crimes prior to age 18. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.48; May 2014, p.38; June 2013, p.50].

• Utah and Connecticut reduced the size of so-called “drug-free zones,” which enhance prison sentences for selling drugs within a certain distance from schools and parks.

• Four other states reclassified certain felonies as misdemeanors, thereby automatically restoring voting rights, public benefits and access to public housing to thousands of former prisoners who had been convicted under those felony statutes.

Additionally, Alabama, Maryland and Utah passed legislation to advance reforms under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a data-driven approach designed to curtail spending on corrections and reinvest the savings in crime- and recidivism-reduction strategies, while Montana established a sentencing commission to review that state’s sentencing policies.

Despite these encouraging developments, The Sentencing Project found such reforms have had only a modest effect on mass incarceration in the United States, and a “limited impact” on state prison populations.

More substantial changes need to be made – including reducing lengthy sentences even for serious (e.g., violent) crimes – in order to significantly reduce the nation’s incarceration rate, the report stated.

The reforms recommended by The Sentencing Project include: 1) fully eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, 2) scaling back three strikes laws and statutes that increase sentences based on a defendant’s prior criminal history and 3) reconsidering lengthy prison terms with a focus on the goal of public safety.

The current state-level trend towards sentencing reform has been motivated by financial considerations, the study noted. The need to reduce spending on prisons – including prison construction – has caused some state lawmakers to seek cost-saving measures, citing the lack of available budgetary resources to maintain a high prison population.

States must do more to have a meaningful impact, however. Being “tough on crime” or “smart on crime” are choices that policymakers face, but given the limited correlation between incarceration and crime rates, “state lawmakers will [have to] advance future reforms to scale back mass incarceration by dealing with the severity of punishment,” the report concluded. 

Sources: “The State of Sentencing 2015: Developments in Policy and Practice,” by The Sentencing Project (Feb. 2016); Prison Policy Initiative