Eliminating prison as a sentencing option is a pragmatic policy goal that state advocates have mobilized support for during this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers in a handful of states introduced measures to reclassify certain felony offenses to misdemeanors. California voters supported felony reclassification under Proposition 47 during 2014. The strategy has implications beyond prison, since many with prior felony convictions experience collateral consequences and may be banned from job opportunities, public and private housing, and voting.
Connecticut Governor Leads Effort for “Second Chance Society”
Earlier this year, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy championed legislation (S.B. 952) under his “Second Chance Society” initiative to reclassify certain non-violent offenses as misdemeanors, and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for narcotics possession. One of the governor’s goals is to address the social isolation that persons with felony convictions experience with an aim to reduce recidivism and strengthen reentry efforts.
Supporters of the legislation include the Malta Justice Initiative, a criminal justice policy organization of Connecticut citizens including businesses, clergy, law enforcement, and formerly incarcerated people who want to change the state’s criminal justice system. Other supporters include the African American Affairs Commission, the Connecticut Conference United Church of Christ, and the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a free-market think tank.
Addressing Sentence Lengths for Persons with Prior Felony Convictions in Kentucky
In recent years, Kentucky lawmakers and advocates have worked to address underlying structural issues in the state’s criminal code that reinforce excessive sentences. During 2015, House Bill 304 was introduced to reduce the number of persistent felony charges by requiring the current conviction to be for a “triggering offense,” rather than just for any new felony, as in current law. The Kentucky Department of Corrections estimates that the legislation could reduce persistent felony offender sentencing lengths.
Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy has collaborated with a free-market think tank, the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, to support a range of sentencing reforms including reclassifying low-level felonies as gross misdemeanors. Other supporters included the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and faith leaders with the United Methodist Church. Earlier this year, Kentucky’s lawmakers also considered a bill to expand voting rights to persons with felony convictions and authorized legislation to enhance certain heroin penalties.
Advocates Support Felony Reclassification and Reinvesting Savings in Massachusetts
Massachusetts lawmakers introduced legislation this year to reclassify certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors, and reinvest the savings from those reforms into job training, youth jobs and other programs aimed at workforce development. The coalition that has mobilized in support of a “Jobs Not Jails” campaign includes the Boston Workers’ Alliance, Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, and the Youth Jobs Coalition.
The legislation also includes provisions to repeal certain mandatory minimums and has garnered opposition from certain prosecutors. Resistance has led to formal engagement with reform supporters including the state’s Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants and former federal judge Nancy Gertner.
- Alabama – The state Senate advanced legislation to reduce penalties for some non-violent property and drug crimes and expand and refine parole, probation and community corrections programs.
- Maryland – Several bills reforming criminal justice policies cleared both chambers. Measures include repealing mandatory minimums for a second non-violent drug conviction, authorizing sealing of records after three years for persons convicted of eligible misdemeanor offenses, and expanding voting rights to persons on felony probation and parole.
- Missouri – Legislation to scale back the state’s truth-in-sentencing provision advanced out of committee. The measure would reduce the mandatory time served for offenses classified as dangerous, including robbery and assault convictions, from 85 percent of the sentence to 50 percent. Mississippi lawmakers authorized a similar measure last year.
- Nebraska – State lawmakers introduced legislation to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain higher-level felonies. The legislation would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for persons sentenced as “habitual criminals” and limit the cases in which people could be classified as “habitual offenders,” a status that carries additional prison time. Under current law, people can be deemed “habitual criminals” when they are convicted of a third felony for any offense.
- Texas – Singer John Legend launched his anti-mass incarceration campaign, “Free America,” and coordinated with state advocates to amplify support for current efforts to raise the age when teenagers can be criminally charged as adults, and reduce penalties for marijuana possession.
- Wisconsin – A bipartisan lawmaker delegation invited Republican activist Grover Norquist to the state capitol to discuss correctional reform.