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State Advocacy Update: Mid-Session Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform

March 31, 2017
Over 40 state legislatures remain in session, with lawmakers and advocates advancing sentencing code reform, reductions in technical violations, assessments of racial disparity, and limits to collateral consequences for persons with criminal convictions.

Over 40 state legislatures remain in session, with lawmakers and advocates advancing sentencing code reform, reductions in technical violations, assessments of racial disparity, and limits to collateral consequences for persons with criminal convictions.

States Consider Sentencing Code Reform

Several states are considering legislative proposals to recalibrate mandatory minimum sentences and other criminal penalties. Sentencing code reform can result in prison population reductions and lead to prison closures.

Missouri lawmakers are considering House Bill 38, a bill that restructures the state’s sentencing code for mandatory minimum penalties by making them discretionary. The measure would also establish a process for parole eligibility for serious offenses. The measure garnered support from progressive and conservative state groups.

Nebraska officials are deliberating Legislative Bill 447, a proposal to scale back mandatory minimums. The introduced legislation would have repealed minimum sentences for a variety of offenses, including hate crimes, certain gun felonies, and drug trafficking. Lawmakers adopted amendments during the floor debate that narrowed the bill to only include certain drug possession offenses for crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. The measure has surfaced disagreements among some conservative lawmakers; some publicly support the bill because of prison growth concerns while others are opposed due to support for punitive responses to crime.

Policymakers in Washington considered House Bill 1789, legislation that would establish a community review board to evaluate sentencing release applications for certain incarcerated persons after 20 years in prison.  The Washington Community Action Network is organizing to build momentum and advance the policy goal.

Washington Community Action Network

A number of states – Iowa, Idaho, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin – have also introduced sentencing code law reforms this year.

Addressing Racial Disparity in State Criminal Justice Systems

Racial justice advocates in Arkansas, Oregon, New Jersey, and Vermont have advanced practical policy goals to address racial disparities in the system. The Arkansas Senate approved Senate Bill 237, legislation that would require a racial impact statement for proposed sentencing laws. The measure includes provisions requiring the legislative sponsor to modify any bill proposal that is found to result in a racial disparity or submit a statement for the record to explain why the legislative proposal should be adopted.

Legislation was introduced in Oregon to improve that state’s racial impact statement policy.  Currently, the state authorizes racial impact statements when a policymaker from each major political party submits a written request. House Bill 2238 would alter that process by removing the requirement for lawmaker requests while limiting racial impact statements to measures voted out of committee.

The New Jersey Assembly recently approved Senate Bill 677 requiring racial impact statements. The legislation was amended and returns to the Senate for concurrence. The law directs a state agency to prepare a racial and ethnic impact statement for each proposed criminal justice bill, resolution, or amendment that would affect pretrial detention, sentencing, probation, or parole policies concerning adults and juveniles.

Vermont lawmakers heard testimony on House Bill 492 earlier this month. The measure would establish a racial justice reform oversight board to monitor and implement practices that address structural racism and its contribution to disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system. Justice for All, a state advocacy group, anchors a legislative strategy in support of the measure that includes petition gathering and other tactics.

States that have introduced measures to address racial disparity in the criminal justice system this year include Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Washington.

Scaling Back Collateral Consequences

States have furthered efforts to address the collateral consequences of conviction in order to reduce returns to prison for justice involved persons.

Kentucky lawmakers are considering several reform measures to address the state’s prison system and have adopted Senate Bill 120. The bill removes automatic exclusions for occupational licenses for persons with a criminal conviction. SB 120 was amended to clear various legislative hurdles, such as removing a provision that would have increased property thresholds for certain felony theft offenses.

Utah officials adopted House Bill 178, to eliminate automatic bans to rent property under the Good Landlord Law for persons with criminal histories. The bill amends the process that rental properties voluntarily comply with to receive program tax incentives and other benefits.

Lawmakers in several states are sponsoring a range of legislative proposals to address the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. These include measures addressing eligibility requirements for public benefits, employment barriers, and voting rights.

Other State Reform News

Arkansas officials eliminated juvenile life without parole as a sentencing option.

Louisiana legislators will consider a range of recommendations to address the state’s high rate of incarceration.

Maryland lawmakers advanced legislation to remove the governor from final approval for parole decisions.

Michigan officials adopted a package of 20 bills including one that limits jail stays for parole violators to 30 days.

Nebraska legislation was advanced that repeals a 2-year waiting ban on voting for persons with a felony conviction.

Oklahoma policymakers voted several bills out of the House including a measure that authorizes parole eligibility for persons convicted of nonviolent offenses who have served 25 percent of their sentence.

Tennessee legislators are considering legislation that would authorize a parole review for certain homicide offenses after persons serve 25 years. Currently, persons sentenced to indeterminate life are eligible for parole after 60 years, or 51 years with good time.

Texas lawmakers are considering legislation to establish a parole process for young defendants sentenced for serious offenses who are under age 18. The bill would allow parole when the actual time served equals one-half of the sentence or 20 years, whichever is less, following a 2-year mandatory minimum requirement.

Also in Texas advocates are calling on the state to close additional prisons.

Legislation was introduced in South Carolina to scale back truth-in-sentencing requirements from 85 percent to 65 percent for certain serious offenses.

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