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State Advocacy Update: New Proposals to Challenge Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice System

February 25, 2016
Efforts to challenge mass incarceration continued this month in state legislatures. In recent weeks, lawmakers have considered proposals to adopt racial impact statements and to address punishment for serious offenses.

Efforts to challenge mass incarceration continued this month in state legislatures. In recent weeks, lawmakers have considered proposals to adopt racial impact statements and to address punishment for serious offenses.

Source: Empower Missouri

Empower Missouri’s Criminal Justice Task Force met with policymakers on a range of criminal justice and juvenile justice priorities. This year, legislators are considering juvenile expungement legislation, expanding parole eligibility, and increasing access to in-prison education to reduce recidivism.

Advancing Policy to Address Racial Disparity

This month, lawmakers in Maryland and Washington considered legislation to require racial impact statements. Racial impact statements are a tool for lawmakers to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation.

Maryland officials debated House Bill 168, which would add requirements to currently mandated fiscal and policy statements to include projections for the state’s prison population and related impacts on racial disparity. The analysis would be required for proposed sentencing laws that create a new criminal offense or change the penalty for a current offense.

Washington lawmakers also contemplated racial impact statement legislation with House Bill 2076. The legislation is similar to a measure adopted in Oregon in 2013. The bill would require the state’s Caseload Forecast Council to provide a racial and ethnic impact statement on any legislative proposal if requested by a legislator. The proposed law requires the impact statements to provide an estimate of the effect of legislative proposals on racial and ethnic minority groups, including the composition of the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

States considering similar measures include Illinois and New Jersey. Other legislative proposals to challenge racial disparity in the criminal justice system can be viewed here.

Dealing with Punitive Responses for Serious Offenses

Advocates and lawmakers are considering policy proposals relating to sentencing for serious offenses. At the state level, over 50% of incarcerated persons are imprisoned for a violent offense.

Iowa’s Rep. Mary Wolfe introduced House File 2171, a measure that scales back mandatory minimums requiring 70% of time served to 30% for certain felony offenses, including second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. Rep. Wolfe’s legislation is based on recommendations from the state’s Department of Human Rights. The agency’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning department examined the impact of long-term sentencing on the prison system and public safety in 2013.

Lawmakers and advocates in New Mexico worked to counter legislation that would have expanded that state’s “three strikes,” or habitual offender, law. Currently, three violent offenses trigger a mandatory life sentence. House Bill 56 would have expanded that category to 16 additional offenses. State and national advocates worked to oppose the tough-on-crime legislation with a counter-narrative rooted in evidence-based practices proven to prevent violent crime. Opinion pieces were published in state newspapers to emphasize bipartisan disapproval. Earned news media attention was garnered with an opinion piece circulated by former Gov. Gary Johnson.

Other News

Alabama – Lawmakers are considering ways to address the scope of voting restrictions for persons convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude,” a statutory qualification that eliminates voting for certain convictions.

California – Gov. Jerry Brown is sponsoring a ballot measure to authorize early release from prison for persons with non-violent convictions and to raise the age for juvenile prosecutions.

Georgia – Legislation was introduced, championed by Governor Nathan Deal, to expand specialty courts promoting alternatives to incarceration and restrict the use of detention for juveniles under the age of 13 for a first offense.

Hawaii – A hearing was held to expand voting rights to incarcerated persons.

Illinois – Lawmakers are considering policy goals to achieve the governor’s vision of reducing the state’s prison population by 25% by 2025.

Kentucky – The House approved HB 70, legislation to amend the state’s constitution, authorizing voting rights for persons with non-violent felony convictions.

Maryland – Legislation was introduced based on recommendations by the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council. The proposal’s provisions include sentencing reforms and guidance on risk assessment for parole decisions, among other changes. .

Massachusetts Lawmakers considered a measure to repeal the mandatory suspension of driver’s licenses for persons with a drug offense.

Missouri – Legislation was introduced to authorize a ‘ban-the-box,’ or fair chance hiring policy, for public employment for persons with a criminal record.

Oklahoma – State advocates announced a ballot measure initiative to reclassify certain low level felony offenses to misdemeanors.

Tennessee – The governor sponsored legislation to address the state’s prison growth aligned with recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism.

Wyoming – The Senate advanced comprehensive legislation that includes provisions to expand in-prison drug treatment; enhance judicial discretion at sentencing; and scale back mandatory probation terms to address recidivism.


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