From The Director

This analysis of state-level changes in sentencing and corrections laws enacted in 2014 and 2015 reaches readers in the thick of the 2016 presidential primary season. In a year that marks the end of a two-term administration, it’s not surprising that the media spotlight has thus far focused on potential changes to federal criminal justice policies. 

Yet the evidence gathered by the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections (CSC) for this report demonstrates that the states continue to serve as laboratories of innovation in criminal justice reform. Forty-six states made 201 changes to their sentencing and corrections laws during 2014 and 2015. 

Necessity and the numbers propel these state-level changes. More than 86 percent of people incarcerated throughout the United States are held in state prisons. State policymakers, still struggling with tightened resources stemming from the 2008 recession, are taking heed of a body of evidence amassed through years of research showing that mass incarceration is not effective. Neither public safety nor the long-term health of communities is served by incarcerating so many people for so long. 

The state policy changes in 2014 and 2015 continue a trend that began in 2009 and flow from a reexamination of how to balance the essential priorities of public safety, fairness, and justice. They focus on three areas: creating or expanding opportunities to divert people from the criminal justice system; reducing prison populations; and supporting in-custody and community-based rehabilitation and reentry efforts designed to increase the odds of success upon return to the community. 

Not all people who have landed in the criminal justice system belong behind bars. For many, earlier, targeted community-based responses to their behavior produce much more effective long-term outcomes in steering them away from trouble. Despite a national environment of stark ideological division on many issues, there is significant bipartisan agreement emerging on crime and punishment. It’s manifest in the states, where ideologically driven criminal justice policies rooted in punitive views of justice system-involved people are giving way to an evidence-based approach rooted in what works to make society safer and stronger

President's Signature

Fred Patrick

Director, 2015-2019