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June 28, 2016

Overview of state-level sentencing and criminal justice reform developments

The Pew Charitable Trusts has this new Stateline report headlined "Prisons, Policing at Forefront of State Criminal Justice Action." Here are excertps:

Faced with overcrowded prisons and evidence that lengthy sentences don’t deter crime, more states opted this year to revamp sentencing laws and send some people convicted of lesser, nonviolent crimes to local jails, if they’re locked up at all.

In an about-face after a half-century of criminal justice policies that favored long-term incarceration, Alaska, Kansas and Maryland this year joined at least 25 other states in reducing sentences or keeping some offenders out of prison.

The move to end lengthy prison stays for low-level offenders is one of several steps states took this year in reevaluating criminal justice policies during legislative sessions that have wrapped up in all but a few places. Other measures would help offenders transition back into their communities after release and hold police more accountable.

For years, many lawmakers were wary of appearing soft on crime. But states have recently retooled their criminal justice policies in response to tight post-recession budgets, shifting public opinion and court rulings demanding they ease prison overcrowding....

Alaska, Maryland and Kansas passed bills this year that divert all shoplifting and first-time DUI offenders away from prison, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, expand parole eligibility, and establish diversion programs for youth offenders, respectively.... And in Tennessee, lawmakers changed standards for property theft charges to help reduce the prison population, and established alternatives to re-incarceration for offenders who violate conditions of their parole or probation.

Many of the proposals enacted this year strike a complicated balance between boosting support for ex-offenders and ensuring that those convicted of crimes are held accountable. Relaxing sentencing and increasing the amount of good-time credits prisoners can earn toward an early release means hardened criminals might get out of prison sooner than they should, said Maryland Del. John Cluster, a retired police officer.

But he said his state could have gone farther to help offenders with job training and other re-entry assistance once they serve their time. “You clean an addict up and you let him out,” Cluster, a Republican, said. “[If] he doesn’t have a job, in less than a year he’s going to be back on the drugs.”

Many lawmakers are eager to reduce the expenses that come with running prisons. For example, prison systems cost taxpayers 14 percent more than state budgets indicate because they do not factor in expenses like benefits for correctional employees and hospital care for inmates. Prisons also strain local social services, child welfare and education programs.

But still, some elected officials want to build more. In Alabama, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley proposed spending $80 million to consolidate some of the state’s existing prisons and build four new ones. The state has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the country, operating at 180 percent of capacity.

June 28, 2016 at 07:58 AM | Permalink

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