Nearly one third of states have convened emergency sessions in response to COVID-19 or policing issues. Officials in several states, including Missouri and Virginia, are considering special sessions before the end of the year. Special or emergency sessions may offer criminal justice reform coalitions an opportunity to advance decarceration priorities, address racial disparities, and challenge collateral consequences.
COVID-19 animated state advocates’ efforts to demand decarceration. Several categories of incarcerated persons have been released, including the medically vulnerable and elderly people at risk of severe illness. Several state executive orders expedited early release for persons with less than a year left on their prison terms. California, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Oregon governors issued commutations partially influenced by COVID-19 precautions.
Special sessions could provide an opportunity to expand releases for life-sentenced prisoners. Missouri lawmakers discussed authorizing parole hearings for persons sentenced to life without parole after serving twenty-five years. Lawmakers in Vermont and Massachusetts recently considered similar measures.
Challenging Racial Disparities
George Floyd’s death has been a catalyst to address racial inequities in policing and other areas of the criminal justice system. Mississippi lawmakers included racial impact statements among various reforms to policing and other issues. Racial impact statements are a tool for lawmakers to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation. Five states – Iowa, Connecticut, Florida, Oregon, and New Jersey – have implemented mechanisms for the preparation and consideration of racial impact statements in response to proposed changes to sentencing policy. Analogous to fiscal impact statements, they assist legislators in detecting unforeseen policy ramifications. Policymakers in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have considered racial impact statement legislation.
The DC Council passed the Restore the Vote Amendment as part of emergency policing and justice reform legislation, authorizing voting by residents incarcerated in jail or prison with a felony conviction. The DC Council intends to permanently authorize voting rights for all incarcerated District residents with a felony conviction in a future bill. District residents sentenced to local criminal code violations are imprisoned in the federal Bureau of Prisons so this new law will impact those residents in federal facilities across the country.
Advocates in 20 states could address voting restrictions on felony probation or parole for justice-involved residents. Community based groups will be working this year to register voters with prior convictions and facilitate jail-based voter campaigns too.
- California – Following a surge in COVID-19 infections, officials announced plans to release up to 8,000 incarcerated persons.
- Iowa – Lawmakers joined local Black Lives Matter activists to demand Governor Kim Reynolds issue an executive order to restore voting rights to residents with felony convictions.
- Louisiana – The state’s Supreme Court ruled that a lower court must consider claims that life without parole sentences are excessive for low level drug offenses under the state’s habitual offender law.
- Missouri – Former state lawmakers opposed mandatory minimum legislation recently signed by the governor.
- Ohio – Senate Bill 3 advanced out of the Senate; the drug reform measure contains several provisions including reclassifying certain felony drug possession offenses as misdemeanors.
- Tennessee – Policymakers passed Senate Bill 2734 that scales back drug sentencing enhancement zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet.
- Virginia – Lawmakers scheduled special hearings to discuss criminal justice reforms including early releases due to the coronavirus.