With two million Americans in jail or prison and another three million under some kind of correctional control, It makes sense that criminal justice system reforms are constantly being studied and experimented with. Incarcerating more people than any other country does not seem to be working. What will it take to make a real difference?
Changes are Needed
Revision of policies and practices is sorely needed, as it seems all of the get tough on crime bombast has only led to the current problem of over-incarceration in this country. What changes are we seeing in various states across America?
Addressing Racial Disparity
Racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a harsh reality. Consider Black people alone: though they comprise just over 13% of the population, they are involved in over 20% of fatal shootings by police, nearly half of the wrongful convictions that are later exonerated, and they make up over one-third of all executions as a result of the death penalty. In California, they are addressing the problem with the Racial Justice Act for All measure, which gives individuals who have received judgments or convictions earlier than 2021 to seek relief if there is proof of racial bias in their case.
Drug Policy Reforms
In Kentucky, people who have been charged with low-level drug activity and are eligible for a new program are having their cases put on hold temporarily while they focus on treatment programs that address substance use disorders or mental health disorders. From there, they are assisted through outpatient services, including housing assistance, vocational training and placement, education, and behavioral or cognitive treatments.
Many states have decriminalized the use of marijuana, which will have a huge impact on the number of incarcerated individuals. States include Maryland, Arkansas, South Dakota, Missouri, and North Dakota; Colorado decriminalized some psychedelics, only the second state to take such action after Oregon did so in 2020.
The age for detention in Maryland inched up to 13 in all but exceptional cases, and incarceration for youth offenders has been eliminated as a penalty for the majority of misdemeanors—excluding gun violations– and for straightforward probation violations. Maryland also opened more passageways so a greater portion of the youth who are convicted of nonviolent offenses can participate in diversion programs. In Indiana, children under age 12 can no longer be detained; instead, they can take advantage of other interventions directed toward younger offenders. Life sentences for young offenders have been eliminated in Tennessee, and Wyoming is focusing on collecting and standardizing all information related to the juvenile justice program in order to better track offenders and their success or lack thereof.
California’s Reform Measures
California is taking the lead in some important reforms, as well. Senate Bill 731 is one critical piece of legislation that was recently signed into law. It permanently seals virtually all convictions if an individual completes their sentence and stays out of trouble for an additional four years. Other important changes to California law include:
- The end of sentences with mandatory minimums associated with non-violent drug crimes;
- Limits to gang enhancement laws;
- The availability of good behavior credits for individuals in mental health treatment facilities;
- Retroactive repeal of sentence enhancements in certain situations hat had previously been excluded.