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The State of Sentencing 2011: Developments in Policy and Practice

January 26, 2012
During 2011, state legislatures in at least 29 states adopted 55 criminal justice policies that may contribute to continued population reductions and address the collateral consequences associated with felony convictions.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported the number of people in prison declined in 2010 for the first time since 1972; state and federal prison populations fell by more than 9,200 between 2009 and 2010, a decline of 0.6%. Currently, more than 7.1 million men and women are under some form of correctional supervision. The majority of persons – 4.8 million – under criminal justice supervision are in the community on probation or parole, while 2.2 million are incarcerated in prison or jail. The United States continues to maintain the highest rate of incarceration in the world at 731 per 100,000 population.

Reductions in the scale of incarceration are the result of declining crime rates and a mix of legislative and administrative policies that vary by state. Lower demand for correctional capacity resulted in at least 13 states closing prison institutions or contemplating doing so during the past year. One salient reason for prison closures is the reduction in state revenues caused by the recession. According to a report by the National Governors Association, at least 40 states made cuts to correctional expenditures between 2009 and 2010 by reducing labor costs, eliminating prison programs, and making food-service changes. Additionally, states have increasingly focused on finding ways to downscale prisons.

Prison populations declined in 25 states in 2010. The population reduction was largely driven by fewer people being sentenced to prison for either new crimes or parole violations; nearly 58% of the decline in admissions was accounted for by reductions in two states, California (39%) and Florida (19%). A number of the states experiencing declines worked to reduce their prison populations in recent years in order to contain correctional costs and manage prison capacity. Despite these successes, other states experienced prison population growth. Overall, state prison populations declined in admissions by more than 27,700 persons or 0.8 percent; the overall decline in state prison populations was 10,881.

During 2011, state legislatures in at least 29 states adopted 55 criminal justice policies that may contribute to continued population reductions and address the collateral consequences associated with felony convictions. This report provides an overview of recent policy reforms in the areas of sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences, and juvenile justice. Highlights include:

  • Sentence modifications: Four states – Connecticut, Ohio, Nebraska, and North Dakota – established sentence modification mechanisms that allow correctional officials to reduce the prison sentences of eligible prisoners;
  • Drug offense reforms: Four states – Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, and Ohio – revised mandatory and other penalties for crack cocaine and other drug offenses. The states also authorized alternatives to prison as a sentencing option in specified circumstances. In addition, Idaho and Florida expanded the eligibility criteria for drug courts in order to expand their impact;
  • Death penalty: Illinois abolished the death penalty, becoming the sixteenth state to eliminate the sentencing option;
  • Probation revocation reforms: North Carolina restricted the use of prison as a sentencing option for certain persons who violate the conditions of probation; and
  • Juvenile sentencing reforms: Georgia authorized sentence modifications for certain juvenile defendants with felony offenses by allowing judges to depart from the statutory range when considering the youth’s background.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

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