Articles Tagged with criminal justice reform

Who leads the world in the number of incarcerated individuals? The United States. There are over two million people behind bars in this country and another three million under some other form of control (like probation or parole). Add to these numbers up to 100 million people who are living with a criminal record that impacts their opportunities in a negative way every single day. Without question, it is well past time to examine what is not working and make some changes. States from coast to coast are doing just that. 

Drug Policies

People facing non-violent, low-level drug charges in Kentucky can now have their cases put on hold while they undertake treatment and take advantage of vocational services. Meanwhile, states across the country are decriminalizing or legalizing cannabis use, and Colorado decriminalized psilocybin mushroom use.

Revision of Mandatory Minimums

Eliminating or reducing mandatory minimum sentences has been on the docket in Washington, D.C. Maximum sentencing requirements of 45 years have been reduced, and rules related to the reconsideration of lengthy sentences have been adjusted to favor defendants.

Changes to Probation/Parole 

Individuals in Florida who are on probation can now get education or workforce credits in order to reduce the length of their probation. They can earn:

  • 60 days off of probation for every educational activity completed;
  • 30 days off of probation for every six-month period that they were employed for at least 30 hours/week.

The End of Involuntary Servitude

Vermont, Oregon, Tennessee, and Alabama all amended their state constitutions to remove any language that allowed for involuntary servitude in their prisons.

Voting Expansions

Individuals serving jail sentences in Washington State and in Massachusetts are now guaranteed the right to vote. There are now funded programs designed to ensure detainees are aware of their rights and are registered to vote.

Youth Programs

The age of detention has been raised to 12 in Indiana, and improvements in data collection and youth diversion programs have been implemented.

Juvenile courts in Maryland will not have jurisdiction over children until age 13, and juveniles who commit misdemeanors or who sustain technical violations of probation can no longer be placed in secure facilities (with rare exceptions). Additionally, diversion programs have been offered to young people who have committed nonviolent felonies, even without the consent of prosecutors and/or victims.

Tennessee confronted its mandatory 51-year sentencing requirement for certain youth offenders, substituting it with the opportunity for parole after 25 years served.

Re-entry Assistance

Providing help with social relationships and collaborating services with community-based programs in Nevada is expected to help prepare inmates for their eventual release. Support for housing, employment, education, and health services is expected to improve recidivism rates.

Racial Disparities

Under the Racial Justice Act for All here in California, anyone who was convicted of a crime before 2021 may seek relief if they can prove a component of racial bias in their conviction. (Case challenges were already allowed for convictions that occurred during or after 2021). Continue reading

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.

Youth Protections

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.

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District Attorneys in Sacramento, Fresno, Kern, and San Diego counties have voiced their displeasure with Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon’s actions on criminal justice reform. Directives that DA Gascon has put forth include getting rid of cash bail and banning sentencing enhancements and re-sentencing for individuals who are facing extended time in prison. Lisa Smittcamp, the Fresno District Attorney, wrote a scathing letter to DA Gascon on January 19 regarding her disagreement with the Los Angeles Attorney General’s measures. There has yet to be a comment from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office about the letter.

Enhancements happen quite often for gang members. When a gang member commits a crime, prosecutors use their association with a gang to increase the time that is added to their sentence. Smittcamp said that eliminating enhancements can lead to more gang violence that will not just affect the city of Los Angeles but also spread across the state. Smittcamp along with the DAs in Sacramento and San Diego have indicated that they will not allow LA County to have any influence over crimes that include their counties.

How District Attorneys Across California are Tackling Criminal Justice Reform

Despite the pushback against the actions that DA Gascon has taken, there are many supporters of his efforts. Backers say that the changes that DA Gascon has made are important and necessary to reverse the trend of substantial incarceration of the population. Additionally, advocates of the changes also indicate that the bail system is unfair and low-income individuals are the hardest hit.

Even though there are several California DAs opposed to the reforms that DA Gascon has taken, that does not mean that they have not also made improvements to address the issues. Smittcamp in Fresno created a Mental Health Court, Drug Court, Veteran’s Court, and Restorative Justice program, along with other systems that are aimed at preventing youth from getting involved in gangs. She said that DAs and prosecutors are putting great emphasis on keeping individuals of color, those who are living in poverty, those who have mental conditions, and others who have drug problems the ability to access support programs. Helping these individuals overcome their personal battles could prevent them from getting tangled up with the California criminal justice system. Continue reading

The United States offers its people the most freedom and liberty of any country in the world, yet, despite this, the prison population is larger here than in all other countries. For a country that is forward-thinking and home to laws that are not draconian by any means, it does not seem logical that there are so many people incarcerated. In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that approximately 2.2 million adults were locked away in jail. 

When a person is locked up, many times, they are not serving their time alone. Often, inmates leave behind loved ones that have to also endure the distance apart and manage the emotional toll of the situation. In some instances, the inmate was the sole means of financial support for their loved ones and while they are behind bars, their loved ones suffer that loss. There are several implications that come along with a prison sentence, and the effects are far-reaching. In many instances, a jail term affects more people than just the inmate themselves.

Why are America’s Prison Populations So Big?

America’s struggle with prison reform has gotten more attention in recent years. There are many factors that are being evaluated to determine what the best approach would be when it comes to using prison in a reasonable manner and when the prison is not the right approach to a specific case. There are many reasons why so many people are housed in the U.S. prison system, but the following three issues are the most pervasive:

  • The United States has made a concerted effort to fight the “War on Drugs” for close to 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared it in 1971. Federal dollars were funneled to drug control agencies and assistance was plentiful for other efforts the country made in trying to control the problem. Federal prisons are more than half-full of people serving time simply because they were associated with controlled substances in some capacity. Unfortunately for those individuals jailed because of their addiction, jail is not a remedy nor a cure and these individuals are being immensely underserved by the system.
  • Recidivism rates are high when a criminal record is a permanent blemish on a person’s history that follows them around for the rest of their life. A person with a criminal history has to work much harder to live a lawful life and get ahead because they are significantly limited in their opportunities. It is also a barrier for an ex-con to establish new, healthy relationships with others.
  • Those living at the lowest economic levels are at increased risk for exposure to criminal activity and to engage in criminal activity. For instance, in the United States, if your income level is under the Federal poverty level the risk for violent victimization is more than 50% higher than those that have higher income levels. When urban poverty is assessed, individuals living in these conditions are the most vulnerable to violent aggression as well as overall crime.

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According to The Sentencing Project, private prisons nationwide held 128,063 people in 2016. This number represents 8.5% of the federal prison population. Since the beginning of this decade, the private prison population increased 47%. On September 11, 2019, a new law made California the first state to end its use of for-profit, private prisons and detention facilities. This ban on private prisons will change the issue of mass incarceration and influence the criminal justice system and the criminal process overall.

Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32) Bans Private Prisons

Assembly Bill 32 was passed on September 11, 2019, by the California State Legislature and signed by Governor Newsom on October 11, 2019. It has been added to the California Penal Code, and bans the use of private, for-profit prisons and detention facilities.

The law prohibits the Department of Corrections from entering into contracts, on or after January 1, 2020, with private facilities in state or out of state. The same law applies for the renewal of existing contracts. 

By January 2028, all contracts will be phased out and the State of California can no longer hold inmates in any private prison or detention facility.

The Impact of the AB 32

An article in CBS News reveals that AB 32 impacts over 1,400 inmates and 4,000 detainees that are currently housed in private prisons and detention facilities.

The Law Does Not Apply to Certain Facilities

It is important to note that the new law comes with exceptions mentioned in Section 9502. The law does not apply to any of the following facilities:

  • Rehab, counseling, mental health, educational facilities
  • Residential care facilities
  • Evaluation or treatment facilities
  • Vocational or medical facilities
  • School facilities used for disciplinary detention
  • Facilities used for quarantine or isolation for public health reasons
  • Temporary detention facilities

Additionally, the law does not apply to private facilities operating with a valid contract with a governmental entity that was in effect prior to January 1, 2020.

For a list of additional exceptions and to read the bill in its entirety, you are invited to review Assembly Bill 32 on the California Legislature website.

California and its Criminal Justice Reform Measures

NBC San Diego reports that the State of California’s inmate population has been declining due to measures to ease criminal sentences. According to the report, the inmate private prison population consists of less than 1% of the 125,000 inmate population. Continue reading

Gov. Jerry Brown continues his push to overhaul California’s criminal justice system by announcing an additional $50 million in funding to rehabilitate former inmates. The $50 million in funding would expand job training for inmates while they are incarcerated and then help the inmates locate employment upon their release from state prisons. Currently, the state of California only spends $106 million in rehabilitation and reentry programs.

For advocates of criminal justice reform, the roughly $150 million on rehabilitation services is not nearly enough to tackle what has become a serious problem in the state. Of the 36,000 California prisoners released in the last year with data available, a full 46% were convicted of another crime within just three years. According to Assemblyman Tom Lackey, “That’s a very miserable number. It indicates that the efforts as currently constituted, are not being as successful as they need to be.”

Lackey has introduced a new bill in the state Legislature which would require the state’s inspector general to evaluate the effectiveness of all of the state’s rehabilitation programs and report back to the Legislature every 10 years. According to Lackey, this will not only improve the lives of California inmates by providing effective rehabilitation opportunities, but it will also ensure California is spending its money wisely.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer agrees with Lackey about the need for accountability concerning the state’s rehabilitation efforts. Both legislators said they would like to see an investment in education as part of the broader shift to reduce recidivism. Gov. Brown’s proposal does not propose any new funding for education.

Between the Democratic Governor and multiple Republican legislators, it appears a bipartisan consensus is emerging over the need to help former inmates integrate better into society. The only problem is how exactly to fix the problem and how much money should be spent. In a state with a projected budget surplus of $6 billion over the next year, proponents of rehabilitation reform state the Governor’s new funding is not a “dramatic” change to money spent on rehabilitation programs and fail to include programs for inmates once they are outside of prison.

Further, considering Gov. Brown proposed budget for the next year includes $12 billion for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a full 9% of the state’s budget – the $50 million increase appears to be more of a wink to a large problem than a serious attempt to solve it, according to critics of Gov. Brown’s allegedly mixed record on criminal justice reform. Of the $50 million being proposed for rehabilitation efforts, more than half will be spent on “training inmates to become firefighters.” Continue reading

In the latest criminal justice reform to pass through the state of California, California voters have also approved Prop. 57, the Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Court Trial Requirements Initiative. The measure passed with 65% of the vote. Prop. 57 is a yet another effort by Governor Jerry Brown to lower the state’s overcrowded prison population.

What Does Prop 57 Do?

Prop. 57 would make thousands of prison inmates eligible for earlier parole if their conviction was not for a “violent crime” and allow state officials and corrections officers to give early release credit for rehabilitation. The measure also strips prosecutors of the power to decide when juveniles should be tried as adults and leaves those decisions to judges. It is estimated that 130,000 prisoners could be released.

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