Criminal Justice in the States: Virginia will reinstate driver’s licenses, Iowa kills voting rights bill, South Dakota blocks effort to restrict probation
Updates drawn from the Political Report newsletter. Find out more on our legislative roundup page.
Governor Asa Hutchinson has signed into law a bill that shrouds the state’s death penalty process in secrecy and makes it a felony to “recklessly” identify the makers of drugs used for an execution, as the Daily Appeal has reported.
Making a 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, an expense that compounds the isolation of incarcerated people. Rachel Cohen reports for The Intercept on legislation (House Bill 6714) to make calls from prison free. Some local jurisdictions have taken similar steps, either for all people (New York City) or for minors (Shelby County, Tennessee, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina). The Joint Committee on Judiciary held a hearing in March, but held no vote.
Iowa will most likely take no action on expanding voting rights this year. It is one of just three states with laws that permanently disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony. In March, the House overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of people who complete a felony conviction. But Republican Senator Brad Zaun, chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, decided last week to sideline the bill; Kira Lerner earlier reported in The Appeal on Zaun’s efforts to dilute the reform. Although Governor Kim Reynolds championed the constitutional amendment, on Friday she said she would not use her executive authority to enfranchise people with completed sentences. As a result, people will still need to file individual pleas for clemency—and Reynolds has only restored the rights of 88 people in this way during her first two years in office—though she eased the application process this year.
Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg mounted a strong but ultimately failed push this year to reverse the 2013 reform with which South Dakota created a presumption of probation for offenses in the two lowest felony classes. People can now only be sentenced to prison if a court identifies circumstances that it says make them a threat. The Urban Institute found two years later that this was helping decrease prison admissions and it proposed further reforms, such as expanding presumptive probation to more offenses. But this year Ravnsborg faulted presumptive probation as too lenient and harmful to deterrence. He championed legislation to repeal it and to expand judges’ ability to send people to prison. The state’s prosecutors and sheriffs associations each endorsed the bill, but the Department of Corrections argued that incarcerating more people was unviable and too expensive. The bill died in February when the Senate voted against it. The debate is not settled, however: Ravnsborg said he intends to push for repealing presumptive probation again next year.
Virginia and Montana
Hundreds of thousands of Virginians can regain their driver’s licenses in July. The legislature voted to end their automatic suspension over unpaid fines and fees. Such suspensions trigger further economic and legal hardships for people whose licenses are suspended. (Last week, the Political Report wrote on efforts to counter license suspensions in North Carolina.) But the Associated Press reports that Virginia’s reform expires next year unless it is renewed because it was adopted as a budget amendment.
A similar reform has stalled in Montana, however. The Senate Judiciary Committee has tabled a bill that passed the state House by a large majority in March; the bill is a joint push of the ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity. Bills are still pending in Illinois and Minnesota.