Many states are close to wrapping up this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers in collaboration with state advocates have advanced measures to challenge mass incarceration. In many instances, legislative remedies built on efforts to scale back harsh sentences for non-violent offenses have moved forward. Yet, legislative proposals have also been introduced in at least two states – Delaware and South Carolina – to address lengthy prison terms for violent offenses. Pragmatic remedies that revisit excessive prison terms will help sentencing advocates to grapple with the policies that have contributed to incarceration growth.
Scaling Back Three Strikes Law
State Senator Karen Peterson championed legislation – SB 163 – to scale back the state’s habitual offender sentencing structure, or “three strikes law,” including for persons with prior violent convictions. Currently, the law requires a mandatory life sentence upon a third conviction for a violent offense, as well as requiring that a person with three prior non-violent felonies and then a violent felony be sentenced to the maximum allowed for the violent felony.
SB 163 would change the statute by eliminating mandatory life in prison for a third criminal conviction. Specifically, under the proposed law a person would be declared an habitual offender after being convicted of a third violent felony or a fourth felony of any kind. Importantly, the proposed legislation is retroactive and would allow for a sentencing modification for persons convicted under the old law. Law enforcement officials like Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn have publicly championed legislation to scale back the habitual offender law.
Grassroots Effort to Retroactively Scale Back Mandatory Minimums
A grassroots organization – Hearts for Inmates – worked to get legislation (HB 5120) introduced this session to scale back mandatory minimum requirements from 85 percent under the state’s truth-in-sentencing law to 65 percent; the legislation is retroactive. Persons sentenced under the state’s current structure, also known as “no parole” for designated felonies, can be sentenced to 20 years or more and are ineligible for early release.
(Source: Hearts for Inmates)
Coalition participants focused on political education to familiarize members with the state’s main drivers of prison growth. Advocates were inspired by a 2014 law change in Mississippi that scaled back mandatory minimum sentences from 85 percent to 50 percent for violent offenses under that state’s truth-in-sentencing law.
To build support for the law change, state advocates are working with family members and directly impacted persons to contact their lawmakers and House Judiciary members in support of the bill. The coalition has also worked to raise awareness of the collateral impacts of mass incarceration by leveraging grassroots tactics like a recent rally at the state capitol and collecting petition signatures to affirm public support.
Alaska – Lawmakers continue to consider a criminal justice reform measure. Senate Bill 91 contains several provisions including statutory sentence reductions for certain felony offenses and a maximum imprisonment of 30 days for most misdemeanor cases.
District of Columbia – District officials approved a measure to prevent violent crime focused on a public health approach. TheNeighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Amendment Act of 2016 (NEAR Act), contains several provisions including evidence-based prevention efforts for youth at-risk of committing violent crime.
Connecticut – Lawmakers moved legislation to raise the age to 21 for juvenile justice jurisdiction.
Florida – Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 228 a measure that repealed the state’s “10-20-Life” law that imposed a mandatory-minimum sentence for crimes involving guns.
Georgia – Lawmakers approved SB 367, a comprehensive package addressing reentry and collateral consequences. The legislation also included a modified ban on food assistance for persons with felony convictions.
Kansas – Policymakers sent a comprehensive juvenile justice reform package to Gov. Sam Brownback for his signature. The measure modifies the sentencing structure governing juvenile offenses, codifying terms of confinement for misdemeanor and felony offenses. Lawmakers modified the state’s juvenile sentencing structure to shift the juvenile justice system away from incarceration.
Kentucky – The Senate approved HB 40, a bill that allows individuals to apply to have certain felony offenses expunged from their records after completing their sentences. The measure limits individuals seeking expungement to a single offense.
Maryland – Both the Senate and the House approved versions of a sentencing reform package that addresses mandatory sentencing of persons with drug offenses and restrictions on jailing persons for technical violations of parole. The legislation follows recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative; the House bill more closely reflects those provisions. Lawmakers will attempt to reach a compromise on the competing bills this session.
Minnesota – Community members called for sentencing reform rather than reopening a privately owned correctional facility to address prison overcrowding.
Nebraska – Legislation to repeal the federal ban on public assistance for persons with felony drug convictions failed to clear legislative hurdles. However, the measure garnered substantial bipartisan support for improving reentry policies.
New Hampshire – Lawmakers advanced legislation to repeal mandatory minimums for crimes including armed career criminal and driving with a suspended license.
New York – Governor Andrew Cuomo announced efforts to explore a presumptive parole policy for low risk individuals.
Oklahoma – Gov. Mary Fallin issued an executive order authorizing a fair chance hiring policy in state employment, also known as “ban the box,” for prospective applicants with criminal records.
Texas – The city of Austin adopted the Fair Chance Hiring ordinance, a “ban the box” policy, easing barriers to city employment for persons with criminal convictions. The effort was anchored by a grassroots coalition of formerly incarcerated activists.
Washington – A state lawmaker announced plans to introduce legislation allowing a “second look review board” to govern early release after twenty years for persons sentenced under the state’s three-strikes law.
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