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The State of Sentencing 2010: Developments in Policy and Practice

February 17, 2011
During 2010, state legislatures in at least 23 states and the District of Columbia adopted criminal justice policies that may contribute to reductions in the prison population and eliminate barriers to reentry while promoting effective approaches to public safety.

Today, 7.2 million men and women are under correctional supervision. Of this total, five million are monitored in the community on probation or parole and 2.3 million are incarcerated in prisons or jails. As a result, the nation maintains the highest rate of incarceration in the world at 743 per 100,000 population.

The scale of the correctional population results from a mix of crime rates and legislative and administrative policies that vary by state. In recent years, lawmakers have struggled to find the resources to maintain state correctional systems; 46 states are facing budget deficits in the current fiscal year, a situation that is likely to continue, according to the National Governors Association. Many states are looking closely at ways to reduce correctional costs as they seek to address limited resources. States like Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York have successfully reduced their prison populations in recent years in an effort to control costs and effectively manage prison capacity. Overall, prison populations declined in 24 states during 2009, by 48,000 persons, or 0.7 percent.

During 2010, state legislatures in at least 23 states and the District of Columbia adopted 35 criminal justice policies that may contribute to reductions in the prison population and eliminate barriers to reentry while promoting effective approaches to public safety. This report provides an overview of recent policy reforms in the areas of sentencing, probation and parole, drug policy, the prison census count, collateral consequences, and juvenile justice. Highlights include:

  • South Carolina equalized penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses as part of a sentencing reform package that garnered bipartisan support.
  • New Jersey modified its mandatory sentencing law that applies to convictions in “drug free school zones,” and now authorizes judges to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum in appropriate cases. Prior to the reform, more than 3,600 defendants a year were convicted under the statute, 96% of whom were African American or Latino.
  • Colorado modified its parole revocation policy in order to encourage greater use of substance abuse treatment programs. The legislation also requires that a portion of the cost savings from reduced incarceration be allocated to reentry services including employment assistance and substance abuse treatment.
  • Vermont established a goal of reducing the incarceration rate that directs a coalition of criminal justice stakeholders to work cooperatively to reduce the incarceration rate to 300 persons or less per 100,000 population, from the current rate of 370 per 100,000.

State policymakers enacted policy reforms for various reasons, including controlling state budgets and managing prison capacity. However, many lawmakers are also interested in reform because of their awareness that large-scale incarceration has produced diminishing returns for public safety. As a result, legislators and other stakeholders have become increasingly interested in implementing policies that strengthen public safety by providing a more appropriate balance of approaches to crime control.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

 
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