Thirty-Five States Enacted Reforms to Reduce Prison Populations, Lower Costs, and Improve Public Safety in 2013, New Review Says

NEW YORK – In response to the changing views of many Americans concerning the appropriateness of incarceration, state legislators have focused their attention on changing criminal behavior, the goals of incarceration, and the high financial cost of criminal justice policies that have done little to reduce recidivism. As a result, the majority of states in recent years have embarked on criminal justice reforms to reduce prison populations, strengthen community corrections, and improve budgets and public safety.

These trends continued in 2013, as states embraced legislation consistent with the growing body of research demonstrating that carefully implemented and well-targeted community-based programs and practices can produce better outcomes at less cost than incarceration.

A review of 2013 legislative reforms from the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections,Recalibrating Justice: A Review of 2013 State Sentencing and Corrections Trends, aims to be a practical reference for state and federal policymakers looking to enact similar reforms and create stronger communities with less crime and fewer victims.

“These changes reflect the growing realization that reforming our criminal justice systems can protect public safety while reducing prison populations, reducing the financial burden on taxpayers, and supporting stronger communities,” said Peggy McGarry, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

The report examines 85 pieces of legislation passed in 35 states pertaining to one or more of the following areas:

  • Reducing prison populations and costs. States repealed or narrowed mandatory sentencing schemes, reclassified offenses, or altered the default sentences attached to certain offenses. States also sought to expand access to early release mechanisms—such as good time credits—designed to accelerate sentence completion.

Example: Oregon’s HB 3194 gives judges the discretion to sentence certain repeat drug offenders to probation and repeals a prior ballot measure that mandated a minimum sentence of incarceration for these offenders by prohibiting judges from ordering probation.

  • Expanding or strengthening community-based sanctions. Community corrections strategies and programs proven to reduce recidivism—including creating or expanding eligibility for diversion programs and expanding community-based sentencing options—were introduced or strengthened in a number of states.

Example: Illinois’ SB 1872 permits those charged with prostitution to be admitted into a mental health court program. The law directs programs to partner with advocates, survivors, and service providers.

  • Implementing risk and needs assessments. Several states passed laws requiring assessments of an offender’s risk of recidivism as well as his or her criminogenic needs—personal characteristics associated with criminal behavior, such as anti-social attitudes and associates, drug addiction, or mental illness, that when addressed can reduce that risk. States incorporated these assessments at different points in the criminal justice process—at the pretrial stage, at the pre-sentence stage, or to inform supervision and programming, whether in prison or in the community.

Example: Texas SB 213 requires the Department of Criminal Justice to perform a risk and needs assessment for each offender within the adult criminal justice system, identify available transition services and the inmates eligible to participate, coordinate the provision of reentry services, and evaluate the outcomes for offenders who utilize them. The risk and needs assessment must later be repeated by the community supervision department when an offender is placed on community supervision.

  • Supporting the return of offenders into the community. To mitigate the collateral consequences of criminal convictions—such as housing restrictions and exclusion from employment—that hinder the successful reentry and reintegration of the formerly incarcerated back into the community, states passed laws that clarify, expand, or create ways to seal or expunge criminal records from the public record and help offenders transition from prison or jail.

Example: California AB 218 requires all state and local agencies (except criminal justice agencies) to determine whether a job applicant meets the minimum employment qualifications for the position before asking about the applicant’s criminal history. Similar “ban the box” legislation was passed in Maryland, Minnesota, and Rhode Island.

  • Making better informed criminal justice policy. A number of states looked to external groups—such as sentencing commissions, oversight councils, or working groups comprised of key criminal justice experts and stakeholders—to collect and analyze data, formulate policy recommendations, and debate proposals. Some states passed legislation requiring fiscal or social impact statements in order to help legislators consider the ramifications of proposed criminal justice reforms.

Example: Georgia HB 349 creates the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which is tasked with conducting periodic comprehensive reviews of all aspects of the state’s criminal justice system, monitoring the implementation of reforms, and proposing further system changes to reduce recidivism, lower costs, and promote public safety.

Many of these reforms, and others noted in previous years, are to policies adopted between 1994 and 1997, in the years following the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (also known as the “Crime Bill”). The law—one of the biggest pieces of legislation ever enacted by Congress—included the Violence Against Women Act and established the COPS Office, but it also rewarded states (with a total of $2.97 billion in grants for prison construction) for passing sentencing laws that increased the time that most felons would serve in prison. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Crime Bill, and to examine its legacy, the lessons learned, and the path ahead, Vera is convening a series of conversations with experts and policymakers in Washington, DC, as well as issuing a series of reports on sentencing trends—where the states stand on mandatory minimums and other sentencing practices and the resulting collateral consequences. This report is the third in that series. Look for updates on our website.