Recently, state lawmakers have taken steps to address high rates of incarceration. These policy reforms ranged from deciding to close state prisons, changing sentencing laws, and improving college access for persons with criminal convictions. These developments contribute to the national movement to dismantle the tough-on-crime policies that characterize the nation’s punitive criminal justice system.
Texas Prisons on the Chopping Block
Lawmakers decided to close four prisons this year — Bartlett State Jail, Bridgeport Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, Dick Ware Transfer Facility and West Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility. Closing these correctional facilities will reduce state prison beds by 1,755. The bed reductions could save the state $51.5 million in spending. These closures would increase the total number of shuttered Texas correctional facilities to eight.
These prison closures were made possible by modest reductions in the state’s prison population. The number of persons in prison has declined by 4.5% since the Texas prison population peaked in 2010. Policy changes attributed to the closures include the 2007 reforms to expand drug courts, in-prison treatment, and increased parole release rates.
Texas’ prison closures continue a national trend to downscale state prisons. Since 2011, at least 22 stateshave closed or announced closures of 100 state prisons and juvenile justice facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 50,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost saving of over $390 million.
Louisiana Enacts Reforms to Address High Incarceration Rates
Officials enacted several policy reforms in an effort to address Louisiana’s ranking as the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the nation. The changes to sentencing laws are expected to reduce the prison population by 10 percent and save the state $78 million over the next 10 years.
Reforms were included in several pieces of legislation that will change the state’s sentencing laws. Adopted changes include: elimination of mandatory minimums for several offenses including possession of two grams or less of several illegal drugs; increased discretion for judges to suspend or shorten sentences for people who are convicted for a first time violent offense that carries 10 years or less in prison; and authorized parole for persons sentenced to life prison terms as teenagers, although the lawmakers did not eliminate the sentencing option altogether as in other states.
The reform package was achieved with a bipartisan coalition of the Democratic governor, the conservative Republicans who control the House, and the moderate Republicans who control the Senate. There was also broad public support from the state’s Smart on Crime Coalitionand grassroots backing too.
Louisiana and Maryland Consider Ban the Box on College Applications
Lawmakers in two states – Louisiana and Maryland – considered measures to ban the box on college applications for persons with felony convictions. Louisiana’s governor signed a measure to partially ban the box as part of a broader effort to address its punitive criminal justice system. Maryland’s governor vetoed similar legislation stating in the veto letter that the measure did not distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenses. Louisiana’s new policy includes exceptions: schools are allowed to ask about convictions for stalking, rape, and sexual battery.
Louisiana – In addition to other reforms, the governor signed HB 681, a measure that eliminates eligibility restrictions for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and for cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for persons with prior felony drug convictions.
Massachusetts – State residents continued a grassroots push to end mandatory minimum sentences and expand job opportunities for persons with criminal records.
Massachusetts – Lawmakers also considered H. 3558, legislation requiring notification of voting rights for persons who complete their prison term. The state disenfranchises incarcerated persons, but individuals on probation or parole can vote.
New York – Legislation was introduced to authorize racial impact statements.
North Carolina – Lawmakers authorized a “raise the age”provision as part of the state’s budget. The policy change ends the practice of automatically charging 16-year-olds as adults, no matter the crime.
Ohio – Lawmakers are considering recommendations to automatically release incarcerated persons with eligible offenses when the prison population reaches a certain number. The recommendation is included in a broader package of policy reforms supported by the state’s Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee.
Vermont – The governor signed H. 308, a measure that creates a 13-member panel authorized to monitor racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system from policing to prosecution to prisons.