Forty-Six States Enacted 201 Wide-Ranging Criminal Justice Reforms from 2014-2015, New Review Says

New York, NY—The Vera Institute of Justice today released a review of state-level changes in sentencing and corrections laws enacted in 2014 and 2015, which revealed that as the federal government debates sentencing reform, nearly every state has taken action to reduce their reliance on over-incarceration, lower taxpayer costs, and improve public safety. Forty-six states made at least 201 changes to their sentencing and corrections laws, an increase in pace since Vera’s last comprehensive analysis in 2013.

As a bipartisan consensus mounts that mass incarceration has been too costly, ineffective to improving public safety, and devastating to communities of color, the media spotlight on the need to reform the criminal justice system largely falls on Congress. While several bills are currently pending, major reform at the federal level has not passed since the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. In that time, states have increasingly served as laboratories of innovation in criminal justice reform. With more than 86 percent of people incarcerated in the United States held in state prisons, these reforms are a significant sign of progress.

Justice in Review: New Trends in State Sentencing and Corrections 2014-2015 found that most of the 201 changes enacted focused on three stages of the criminal justice system: creating or expanding opportunities to divert people away from entering the system; reducing prison populations by making certain offenses eligible for community-based sentences, reducing the length and severity of custodial sentences, adding early release options, and reducing the number of people re-admitted for violating probation or parole; and supporting reentry into the community for those leaving prison. The report provides concise summaries of representative reforms in each of these areas, serving as a guide for other state and federal policymakers looking to affect similar changes. 

“This report is an important confirmation that policymakers across the country not only recognize the failure of an overly punitive approach to crime, but are developing alternatives that are fairer, more effective, and ultimately better for society,” said Fred Patrick, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “By identifying these trends, we hope that more lawmakers will learn from—and replicate—the substantial progress already made.”

The report identifies several legislative trends that demonstrate how states are responding to specific topics that have recently been an increasing part of the national dialogue on criminal justice:

  • Bail reform: With research showing that people held in jail before trial have higher rates of conviction, longer sentences, and higher recidivism rates, several states have overhauled their bail systems to address the overuse of pretrial detention, especially for those unable to make bail.

    Example: New Jersey S 946 (2015) implements a statewide ballot measure approved by popular vote that eliminates the state’s bail requirement for pretrial release. Under the new law, defendants who do not pose a public safety or flight risk may be released under non-monetary bail alternatives or conditions for release, such as restrictions on travel.  

  • Fines and fees: Criminal sentences often include financial penalties, including charges for electronic monitoring, police transport, or drug testing. These fees often mount up, and failure to pay them can be considered a violation of probation or parole, potentially leading to more jail time or fees. To help break this cycle, states are enacting legislation waiving certain fees, allowing payment plans for restitution, and limiting the use of incarceration as a penalty for non-payment.

    Example: Colorado HB 14-1061 (2014) prohibits imprisonment or probation for failure to pay a court-ordered fee or fine for those with financial hardship. Imprisonment is only allowed for willful non-payment or failure to appear for the hearing, and before imprisonment, the court is required to document the defendant’s ability to pay.  

  • Opioid crisis: Addiction to opiates—prescription pain pills or heroin—is a growing national public health crisis. While medical standards widely recognize medication-assisted treatment as a best practice for treating opioid dependence, many court-mandated treatment programs explicitly prohibit the use of such medications. However, states have recently passed laws incorporating medical-assisted treatment to bolster existing or new treatment approaches, both in custody and in the community.

    Example: New York AB 6255 (2015) amends existing law to allow people using medical-assisted treatment for an opioid addiction to participate in a judicial diversion program.   

  • Solitary confinement: There is increasing recognition of the detrimental effects from the use of solitary confinement—also known as segregation or restrictive housing—on the health of those placed there, as well as the safety of facilities and the communities to which they will return. Recognizing this, states are making changes to reduce the use of the practice, improve conditions and treatment for those in solitary confinement, and facilitate their return to the general prison population.

    Example: Texas HB 1083 (2015) requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to conduct a mental health assessment of people prior to sending them to administrative segregation. The department may not send assessed people to segregation if the examining medical or mental health professional finds that such a placement is unsuitable.

Other legislative trends covered in the report include, but are not limited to: reducing penalties for property and drug offenses; creating 24-hour crisis centers for people with mental illness; deferred prosecution and sentences; specialty courts such as mental health or veteran courts; medical amnesty for those seeking help for an overdose; supporting family relationships for those in prison; and ameliorating the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.

The report is the latest in Vera’s series of sentencing and corrections trends reports dating back to 2009. In addition to one or two-year comprehensive legislation reviews, previous reports have focused on single-subject trends over the course of several years, including mandatory minimums, drug laws, and collateral consequences of convictions.