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7 States Moving Toward Drug Sentencing Reform

These states are not undertaking a radical rethinking of the rote resort to incarceration, but they are nibbling at the edges, particularly when it comes to drug offenders.
 
 
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With state budgets devastated by the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent slow economic growth, the impulse to incarcerate is being blunted by fiscal realities. This year, a number of states have passed legislation designed to ease the financial burden of mass incarceration.

The slight trend away from mass incarceration by the states has been evident for the past couple of years, as for the first time in decades, the number of prisoners being held by the states has declined. According to the  Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, the number of combined state and federal prisoners declined for the first time since 1972. The decline was driven by the states, with state prison populations down 0.5%, while the federal prison population grew by 0.8%.

A number of states, including California and Texas, have in the past decade begun reforming their sentencing practices, accounting for the decline. Recently passed sentencing reforms in several states could help see those numbers drop even further. These include:

1. Hawaii

Last month, Gov. Neal Abercrombie (D) signed into law two bills,  House Bill 2515 and Senate Bill 2776. They will, among other things, allow judges to impose probation for first- and second-time drug possession charges. The bills also expand the use of pre-trial and parole hearing risk assessment to identify and release low-risk offenders and prisoners. And they provide funds for community-based drug treatment programs.

2. Illinois

Late last month, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed into law  Senate Bill 2621, which restores good time credits to non-violent offenders who complete drug treatment, job training, or other rehabilitation programs. Quinn had suspended the good time credits after a 2010 scandal in which it was revealed that many prisoners had won early release after serving only weeks in prison. The new new law requires prisoners to serve at least 60 days before they could be released for good time credit, and prisoners can earn no more than 180 days of good time credit.

3. Missouri

Last week, a bill that reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine began law without the signature of Gov. Jay Nixon (D). The bill was approved by the Republican-led legislature on the last day of the session and reduces the state's 75-to-1 ratio in sentencing for the two different types of cocaine to a ratio of about 18-to-1.

4. New Jersey

Late last month, the legislature passed  Senate Bill 881, under which non-violent, drug-dependent offenders will receive treatment rather than prison. The bill also removes prosecutorial objections to sending someone to drug court and expands eligibility for the state's drug court program. Gov. Chris Christie (R) is expected to sign the bill.

5. Ohio

Late last month, Gov. John Kasich (R) signed into law  Senate Bill 337, which allows people to seal the records on one felony and one misdemeanor or two misdemeanor convictions. The idea is to make it easier for former prisoners to find work. The law also creates a certificate of qualification that will give ex-offenders the ability to get some occupational licenses they were previously barred from obtaining.

6. Pennsylvania

Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed into law  Senate Bill 100, which incorporates many of the recommendations of his Justice Reinvestment Working Group and passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. It expands eligibility for alternative sentencing programs, allows for intermediate sanctions so that fewer technical parole violators are sent to prison, and diverts some low-level defendants from prison. But it's not all good: The bill also eliminates the pre-release program that allows qualifying prisoners to be paroled to halfway houses before their minimum dates.

7. Tennessee

In May, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed into law  Senate Bill 3520, which allows some former prisoners to expunge certain felonies and misdemeanors from their criminal records. It only applies to those with a single conviction, but legislative fiscal analysts projected it would increase expungement requests by 60,000 a year.

The states are not undertaking a radical rethinking of the rote resort to incarceration, but they are nibbling at the edges, particularly when it comes to drug offenders. Every little bit helps.