Criminal Justice Reform in the States: Spotlight on Legislatures

Many of the laws that govern the American criminal justice system are set at the state level. This means that much of the efforts to change or overhaul this system—on anything from sentencing and the death penalty to disenfranchisement and drug policy—happen in legislatures, far from the spotlight that accompanies federal action. This page keeps track of important legislative developments in the current sessions. It is not meant to be exhaustive; it details developments as they are covered in the Appeal: Political Report and in the Daily Appeal.

Information is added weekly. (Last updated on May 16. For the latest, read our weekly roundup, or click on Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts.)

Explore these developments chronologically below, or geographically by clicking on this interactive map:

Tracking legislation Placeholder
Tracking legislation

Note: the Political Report has a special series on state efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement.

May 2019

Colorado

Detention conditions & bail

Local jails will now need to provide free menstrual hygiene products to people in custody. A new law, sponsored by lawmakers Leslie Herod and Faith Winter, extends a mandate that already existed in state prisons. According to 9News, the catalyst for this reform was Elisabeth Epps, an activist with the Denver Justice Project, who has talked about the difficulties she had experienced getting such products while she was detained in jail for interfering with police.

Epps also plays a central role in state organizing against cash bail—and the state just moved on this issue too: A new law will prohibit the use of money bail in petty offense cases and most traffic offense cases. That is a modest reform compared to changes adopted elsewhere, though the legislature also passed a separate bill (the governor has yet to sign it) that requires bond hearings within 48 hours of arrest.

Louisiana

Incarcerating witnesses

Louisiana DAs put victims in jail to compel them to testify in criminal proceedings. The Senate adopted legislation in May to restrict the use of such “material witness warrants” against victims of sexual offenses and domestic violence. The reform was narrowed along the way. The original bill (introduced by Democratic Senator Jean-Paul Morrell) barred jailing such people entirely; but the bill that passed was amended on the Senate floor and only prohibits it in misdemeanor cases. In felony cases, jailing victims is restricted, but not barred. The head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association testified against the original version in committee.

Louisiana and Nebraska

Death penalty

Nebraska lawmakers rejected legislation to abolish the death penalty on a vote of 25 to 17; the bill had advanced past the committee stage last month. The state legislature abolished the death penalty in 2015, but state voters then reinstated it in a 2016 referendum. Senator Ernie Chambers has been the primary sponsor of these repeated efforts. 

The Louisiana Senate also rejected an abolition bill in April. But a House committee then advanced a separate abolition bill. Republicans outnumber Democrats on the committee, but two of them did not vote; no Republican who did vote supported abolition. 

Six states took at least one legislative step to abolish the death penalty in 2019.

 
 
 

Indiana

Innocence and exoneration

new law will expand reentry services available to people who are exonerated. It also provides exonerated individuals $50,000 of restitution for each year they were incarcerated. However, exonerated people will only qualify if they forego all litigation against the state. Kristine Bunch, who was exonerated in 2012 after being incarcerated for 17 years and who has founded the nonprofit Justis 4 Justus to assist exonerated people, criticized the reform for asking people to make this choice. “Saying you can’t have a civil suit in addition to receiving help … it’s like they’ve gotten away with it,” she told the Hendricks County Flyer. “Go in and spend 60 days in prison, then you will realize how shamed I was, how mentally and physically tore down I was,” she said in another interview. The bill was sponsored by Republican Representative Greg Steuerwald.

 

Alabama

Detention conditions

Horrid conditions in Alabama prisons have been under the spotlight since the Justice Department released a report last month detailing the state carceral system’s “severe, systemic” violations. In an earlier report, in 2014, the DOJ assailed one women’s prison for its history of “sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff.” The report found that “prisoners are compelled to submit to unlawful sexual advances” to “obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products.” The state House passed a bill last week that would require prisons and jails to provide these products to incarcerated women. “What I’m hearing is they were not receiving their products in a timely manner, which was causing women to start making their own products,” said Representative Rolanda Hollis, the bill’s sponsor.

CO, MA, NV, and more

Rights restoration

Debates on expanding voter eligibility by reforming or ending felony disenfranchisement have taken off in state legislatures. Colorado and Nevada, are moving to enfranchise everyone upon their release from incarceration, but a legislative committee in Massachusetts killed legislation to abolish disenfranchisement in a vote that was not public.

Read more in the Political Report’s article on the reform landscape in state legislatures.

Oregon

Youth justice

Senate Bill 1008, Oregon’s major legislative package reforming the juvenile system, is still alive. But the Portland Mercury reports that it is under major threat from the Oregon District Attorneys Association. The group, which lobbies in the name of state prosecutors, is taking particular aim at the proposal to lift the mandate that minors charged with higher-level offenses must be tried as adults starting at age 15. SB 1008 would also abolish juvenile life without parole sentences and expand opportunities for early release for people convicted while minors.

Virginia

Fines and fees

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. (In April, 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.

Montana

Fines and fees

House Bill 217 was signed into law in May. It halts the suspension of driver’s licenses over a failure to pay fines and fees, a practice that can trigger mounting legal and economic hardships. This bill was left for dead in early April when a Senate committee voted to table the legislation, but there was enough support for the full chamber to blast HB 217 out of committee and adopt it on April 18, a month after the legislation passed the House. The reform was championed jointly by the ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity.

April 2019

Illinois, and beyond

Youth justice, and life sentences

A new Illinois law defies the usual pattern that in the United States even bold youth justice reforms stop at the age of majority, if not earlier. It does so by creating a parole process for most people who will be convicted of offenses they committed before the age of 21, providing them review after either 10 years or 20 years depending on the offense category.

Read the Political Report on how this law, while restricted, opens doors to think differently about what criminal justice reform can look like.

Michigan, and beyond

Youth justice

There are four states—Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Wisconsin—where the juvenile system stops at 17 for everyone, and where there is no scheduled change on the horizon. Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 has been a priority for criminal justice reform advocates in these states. In April, the Michigan Senate adopted a package of bills that would do so. Such legislation has not moved as far in other states.

In addition, Illinois is considering legislation to move the age to 21. Read more on these efforts in the Political Report.

Missouri

Death Penalty

Missouri will remain one of only three states that allows someone to be sentenced to death even if a jury does not reach unanimity on sentencing. If the jury deadlocks, state law allows judges to impose the death penalty no matter the majority position. Republican lawmakers Shamed Dogan and Paul Wieland had introduced legislation (House Bill 811 and Senate Bill 288) to require a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty. The idea made it out of legislative committee, but it did not move further by the end of the legislative session. 

Oklahoma

Oklahoma

A slate of reforms that would decrease incarceration over lower-level charges is working its way through the Legislature. Six bills have all made it through one chamber and multiple committees in the other. The highest-profile proposal is HB 1269, which the Political Report detailed in March. It would retroactively reduce drug possession and some theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Other bills would waive some fines and fees and lessen some sentences. 

Iowa

Voting rights

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 clemencyand 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.

South Dakota

Sentencing

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.

New Mexico

Solitary confinement

New Mexico adopted a new law last month to restrict solitary confinement. The state has one of the country’s highest rates of solitary confinement, a practice that is tied to widespread deaths in the state’s carceral system, as Kira Lerner reported in The Appeal in January. The law bans putting pregnant women and minors in solitary confinement. It also restricts its use to 48 hours for people with “serious” mental disabilities.

However, the original bill introduced in January went further: It restricted putting anyone in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. This would respect the United Nations’ “Nelson Mandela Rules,” which prohibit its use for longer than that. (Colorado’s Department of Corrections announced it would follow those rules in 2017.) Legislative leaders removed this language on the House floor.

Colorado and Nevada:

Voting rights

Two legislatures are moving to enfranchise anyone who is not presently incarcerated.

  • The Colorado legislature has adopted legislation to enfranchise people on parole; the state already enables people on probation (let alone those who have finished their sentence) to exercise their voting rights. House Bill 1266, filed by Representative Leslie Herod and Senator Stephen Fenberg. It would affect an estimated 10,000 people. (Read more about it here.)
  • A Nevada bill newly proposed by Speaker James Frierson gets to the same point through a bigger jump: Nevada has some of the country’s harshest laws, the Political Report wrote in December: It is one of 12 states where people remain disenfranchised after completing their sentence. 

Neither bill would abolish disenfranchisement as in Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico. Other bills elsewhere in the country propose doing so.

Arizona, New Mexico

“Ban the box”

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed into law a “Ban the Box” bill that bars private employers from asking job applicants about prior arrests or convictions on an initial application. However, employers can inquire into this past and take it into account at later stages.

A similar bill has died in Arizona. The Senate passed it in March, but Republican Representative John Allen refused to take it up in the committee he leads. “I don’t know if we have the legal ability to go into a private company and tell them what they can’t look at,” he said.

North Carolina

Response to opioids

Pastors from the North Carolina Council of Churches and other advocates rallied in Raleigh to demand that the state expand Medicaid. They framed this reform as crucial to fighting the opioid crisis by enabling people with substance use disorder to receive treatment and to shift away from a carceral and law enforcement response to addiction. (The Political Report has written before on how Medicaid advocates connect the dots between access to care, addiction, and incarceration.) The GOP-run legislature has opposed Medicaid expansion. It is now mulling a more punitive response to opioids via House Bill 212, which would significantly increase the length of incarceration for people who break into a pharmacy.

New York

Bail, discovery rules, immigration

The New York legislature has adopted a budget deal that contains reforms that state organizers have long worked toward. These include measures overhauling the state’s discovery rules, reforming the bail system, and protecting noncitizens who are convicted of some misdemeanors from deportation.

Read more on the Political Report.

Colorado, and beyond

Death penalty

Colorado’s bill abolishing the death penalty has failed. It lacked sufficient support in the Senate. Death penalty abolition is still in motion, however, in New Hampshire, Washington, and Nebraska.

Read more on the Political Report.

New Mexico, Wash.

Voting rights

Legislation to restrict felony disenfranchisement in New Mexico died in March when Democratic leaders did not bring the bill to a vote by the session’s deadline. Similar legislation also died in Washington, another Democratic-run state, where the Senate Rules Committee did not advance it.

Mississippi

Voting rights

The last rights restoration bills that was still standing in Mississippi’s legislative session died in March. With the legislative path sidelined once more, what are the prospects and obstacles for the state to emulate Florida in pursuing a popular initiative?

Read more on the Political Report.

March 2019

Oklahoma

Sentencing Reform

In 2016, Oklahomans approved State Question 780, which reduced drug possession and some theft offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor. But SQ 780 did not apply retroactively, which means it gave no relief to people already serving harsh sentences. This month, the state House approved legislation (House Bill 1269) that would remedy this by resentencing people who were already convicted of those offenses before SQ 780 was passed. The bill instructs state authorities to identify and resentence people convicted of drug possession, while those convicted of property crimes would still need to file a petition. At least 2,000 incarcerated people could see their detention shortened or gain immediate release. Many more who have already completed their sentence would have an easier time navigating matters like job applications. HB 1269 now goes to the Senate.

Utah, Colorado

Immigration

Utah adopted a new law Monday that cuts the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor by one day (from 365 to 364). This small change has big implications. Under federal law, noncitizens sentenced to at least one year of detention face deportation, so Utah’s change effectively shields noncitizens from facing such dire consequences based on a misdemeanor conviction. The bill was championed by the Refugee Justice League and Republican Representative Eric Hutchings.

Colorado has adopted a similar law: It reduces the maximum sentence associated with some misdemeanors and municipal violations to 364 days. (The highest class of misdemeanors would still carry longer sentences, however.) Similar reforms have been proposed in other states such as Connecticut and New York.

N.J., Connecticut

Marijuana

Efforts to legalize marijuana in New Jersey derailed on March 25, just hours before a scheduled vote, because of a lack of support in the Democratic Senate. But legalization took its first step in Connecticut. Both bills include provisions that advocates deem essential to social and racial justice. Connecticut’s contains provisions to boost ownership and employment in the marijuana industry for people in “communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and conviction.” New Jersey’s also contains measures to make the marijuana industry more diverse than elsewhere in the country, and it provides for expungement of marijuana-related convictions.

Florida

Medical marijuana

Florida made it illegal for medical marijuana to take a smokable form after a 2016 referendum legalized medical marijuana; Governor Rick Scott then defended the ban in court. But Florida’s new Governor Rick DeSantis announced a policy change in January. “Whether they have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?” he said. This month, the legislature adopted Senate Bill 182, which repeals the ban on smokable marijuana; DeSantis signed it into law.

Washington

Youth justice

Minors in Washington can be detained for noncriminal behavior such as skipping school or running away, Charlotte West reported for The Appeal last week. “The fact that a child can go into detention for something that isn’t a crime is state-sanctioned trauma,” said State Senator Jeannie Darneille. Senate Bill 5290, which would eliminate the use of detention in cases involving truancy or dependency placement orders and reduce its length in other situations like at-risk youth proceedings, passed the Senate in March and now sits in the House.

Oregon

Detention conditions

Oregon’s Senate has passed legislation (Senate Bill 495) to prevent the use of attack dogs on people detained in the state. “Assuming the House passes the bill as well and the governor signs it into law, there will be five other states that still allow this,” writes Vaidyda Gullapalli. Read more in the Daily Appeal‘s article.

Delaware, Utah

Expungement reform

Criminal convictions have ramifications far beyond the explicit sentences imposed on individuals. Reformers are pushing this year to expand and/or automate expungement processes in a number of states. In Delaware, new legislation would considerably increase eligibility for expungement; state law currently provides adults no opportunity short of a pardon to have past convictions expunged.

And Utah adopted a “Clean Slate” bill to automate some of its expungement process. In Utah, as elsewhere, many people who are eligible to apply do not do so, in part because it is too complicated and too costly.

Read more about the Utah and Delaware bills, and the broader push for expungement reform, in the Political Report.

Florida

Voting rights

Two bills, each restricting the right to vote in a different way, have moved forward one legislative step in recent days. Since Amendment 4’s implementation in January, people who have completed their sentence for felony convictions other than sexual offenses and murder have been able to register. But new legislation would shrink the pool of eligible voters by redefining what counts as murder and as a felony sexual offense. One such bill has passed a House subcommittee; another, a Senate committee. The House version also ties restoration of voting rights to repayment of court fines and fees, a measure that would impact lower-income Floridians’ ability to register to vote. An analysis by WLRN found that courts label the majority of fines and fees they impose as unlikely to be repaid because of the defendant’s financial ability.

Arkansas

Asset forfeiture

Arkansas has restricted asset forfeiture to cases where an individual has actually been convicted of a felony. The conviction requirement, which also stipulates that the felony must relates “to the property being seized,” comes with exceptions, for instance if a person flees or does not show up in court. The adoption of Senate Bill 308, comes in the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed civil asset forfeiture. Both chambers passed the bill unanimously, and the governor then signed the bill into law in March.

Iowa

Marsy’s Law

Marsy’s Law, a measure that seeks to enshrine a set of rights for victims in state constitutions, appears to have died for the year. It did not move out of committee by the required deadline last week, though legislative leaders can still resurrect certain measures. Marsy’s Law moved out of committee but was not called on the floor last year, and Governor Kim Reynolds made it one of her goals this year in her Condition of the speech address in January. Melissa Gira Grant reported in The Appeal in November on concerns that Marsy’s Law undermines the rights of defendants.

Arizona

Sentencing reform

Bills to overhaul Arizona’s criminal legal system fell by the wayside as the deadline for them to get out of committee expired. One proposal that advocates had rallied around was House Bill 2270, which aimed to lower the requirement that people serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release; another proposal would have enabled some people to expunge their record. While these bills and others were sponsored by Republicans, the Arizona Central and Arizona Mirror reported that they were largely blocked by Republican Representative John Allen, the chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee. The Mirror also discusses Senator Eddie Farnsworth, the GOP chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery as opponents of reform. 

New York

Marijuana reform

As Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders consider marijuana reform, they face demands from Black lawmakers that legalization include provisions to repair the disproportionate harm that prohibition has caused to people of color, the New York Times reports. Lawmakers “will oppose legalization unless people of color are guaranteed a share of the potentially $3 billion industry” through provisions like a job training program and meaningful opportunities for minority entrepreneurs. Last month, the Political Report talked to advocates in Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey about the measures they believe legalization must contain to promote equity.

N.H., Iowa, and beyond

Death penalty

The New Hampshire House voted to abolish the death penalty, and it did so by a margin large enough to override a gubernatorial veto. Abolition efforts failed in 2018 because supporters lacked such a supermajority. The Political Report writes that legislation to abolish the death penalty is moving forward as well in Colorado and in Washington, and that the California governor just imposed a moratorium on the death penalty. However, Iowa lawmakers are mulling reinstating the death penalty; legislation to do so became eligible for full debate, which would be a first in the state since 1995.

Update: The New Hampshire Senate voted to abolish the death penalty, also on a veto-proof majority.

Arkansas

Death penalty

Arkansas has adopted a new law that will shroud the state’s death penalty process in secrecy and make it a felony punishable by up to six years in prison to “recklessly” identify the makers of drugs used for an execution. Sarah Lustbader writes in the Daily Appeal that “if the stigma of producing tools for execution is so great that no drug manufacturing company will put its name on the product, that should tell us … that executions are beyond the pale.”

North Dakota

Youth justice & sentencing reform

The legislature overwhelmingly adopted two criminal justice bills in late February.

Governor Doug Burgum signed both bills into law on March 7.

Texas

Youth justice

Hawaii

Rights restoration

A legislative committee voted to advance a bill abolishing felony disenfranchisement. But the deadline for the legislation to make it out of committees has now expired with no action from the other committees to which it was referred. Advocates vowed to press ahead then. “People don’t lose their citizenship just because they’re sentenced to prison,” said one advocate.

Read more on the Appeal: Political Report.

New York

Gravity knives

Assemblymember Dan Quart is once again pushing to repeal the state ban on owning “gravity knives,” Jon Campbell reports in The Appeal. It has swept up thousands “for owning what critics argue are common work tools,” Campbell writes. Governor Andrew Cuomo has previously vetoed bills reforming this, as the state’s district attorneys association urged him to.

Read more on the Appeal.

New York

Sex work decriminalization

Decrim NY, a coalition of state organizations, launched a campaign to decriminalize sex work on Feb. 25. Melissa Gira Grant reported on this new effort in The Appeal. The coalition’s aim is “repealing laws criminalizing sex work, restoring the rights of people who have been prosecuted for prostitution-related offenses, and ensuring all people in the sex trades can meet their basic needs … without discrimination,” Grant writes. She explains that although some cast criminalization as important for fighting trafficking, Decrim NY members warn about the harmful consequences of conflating trafficking and sex work; they point out that the enforcement of these codes disproportionately and punitively impacts women of color, as well as trans and gender nonconforming people, and also exposes them to ICE. The coalition has partnered with lawmakers who plan to introduce decriminalization legislation. State Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News about their intent to push for such reform. One bill already introduced by Senator Brad Hoylman would repeal the penal code criminalizing loitering for prostitution.

Massachusetts, Vermont, and more

Sentencing reform

Reformers in Massachusetts and Vermont are hoping to build on recent successes of those who have chipped away at life without parole sentences for minors by pushing proposals to abolish life without parole entirely. They also hope to ensure that everyone serving life is made eligible for parole after 25 years. This would be a first in the U.S. “We have an ethical and moral obligation to not incarcerate people beyond reasonable punishment,” Tom Dalton, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Appeal: Political Report. “After decades of punishment, it’s reasonable to assess whether someone can safely be released to their community.” In addition, bills are still active this year to abolish life without parole sentences for minors in Oklahoma Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Read more on the Political Report.

New Hampshire & Vermont

Marijuana legalization

Efforts to legalize marijuana move forward in two northeastern states. Although Vermont legalized the possession of marijuana last year, it did not set up a system of legal sales. The House and Senate are now considering competing bills (House Bill 196 and Senate Bill 54) to set up such a system, as Marijuana Moment details. The Senate bill has already advanced in three legislative committees.  In New Hampshire, the House voted to legalize possession and sales, and also enable expungement of past convictions,Marijuana Moment reports. The legislation (House Bill 481), which moves to the Senate, did not reach a veto-proof majority, however, and the governor has said he opposes legalization.

Wyoming

Death penalty

Wyoming’s legislature came within a few votes of adopting such legislation but its Senate ultimately rejected the proposal, which had earlier been adopted by the state House. One obstacle to the reform was the lobbying of the Wyoming County & Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Death penalty repeal also fell short last week in legislative committees of the Kansas and Montana state Houses. However, also last week, New Hampshire and Washington moved forward one step on legislation that would repeal the death penalty. The Political Report has more.

Kentucky

Rights restoration

Kentucky’s harsh disenfranchisement statutes deprive more than one in four Black Kentuckians of the right to vote, according to the Sentencing Project. In December, I explored efforts to expand voting rights in the state, and a new effort just got off the ground: Senate Bill 238, filed last week by Senator Morgan McGarvey, would restore people’s voting rights once they complete their sentences for most felony convictions. The bill, which must be approved by lawmakers and then by voters, includes exceptions for certain crimes. It is backed, among other groups, by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that may have sway on the GOP lawmakers who govern the state.

Lawmakers have also introduced bills to reform the process by which some people can petition to expunge low-level felonies and regain their rights. That requires a prohibitive $500 fee, one of the country’s highest, which connects differences in financial capacity with the ability to regain voting rights. House Bill 155 would expand the expungement process, and reduce the fee to $200; Senate Bill 215, also introduced by McGarvey, would reduce the fee to $20.

Missouri

Early release

Two bills expanding early release are moving forward in the House, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The first (House Bill 113) would authorize judges to order the release of individuals after a shorter period of time than their sentence mandates. The bill would not apply to higher categories of offenses. HB 113 is supported by Speaker Elijah Haahr and by the Missouri Department of Corrections, which says it would affect hundreds of incarcerated individuals, but not by the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson, the association’s president-elect, said increasing judicial discretion would make for uneven sentencing.

The second bill (House Bill 352) would grant parole hearings to individuals who are serving lifetime sentences, are older than 65, and have served at least 30 years. The bill would apply only to individuals who have been convicted of a single felony.

Nevada

Sentencing reform

While some states debate how to accelerate decarceration trends, Nevada is confronting the growth of its prison population. The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice approved a report on incarceration in Nevada on an 11-4 vote. According to the report, Nevada’s prison population grew by 14 percent between 2010 and 2016, and it is projected to grow by 9 percent by 2028. The length of incarceration for people convicted of drug offenses has increased by 30 percent since 2012. The report also lists 25 policy recommendations to slow the growth of incarceration.

Read more on the Political Report.

Connecticut

Sentencing reform, and more

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission, a state agency that makes  policy recommendations, has released its proposals for the next legislative session. The commission’s recommendations are forwarded to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “There has to be a public hearing on anything that the sentencing commission proposes,” Alex Tsarkov, the commission’s executive director, told the Political Report. “We take a very active role in the legislative process.” The commission grouped its proposals into three documents.

Read more on the Political Report.

South Carolina

Sentencing reform

A bipartisan coalition of South Carolina lawmakers is pushing a range of sentencing reform contained in House Bill 3322. The bill’s provisions include new avenues for incarcerated individuals to obtain sentence revisions or reductions, for instance by lowering the percentage of a sentence one needs to serve before being eligible for early release from 85 to 65 percent. The bill would also eliminate some mandatory minimums. Of the bill’s 16 sponsors as of Feb. 4, nine are Democrats and seven are Republican. One of them is Peter McCoy, the House Judiciary Committee chairman. The committee held a hearing on the legislation in late January. “More prison time is not the answer,” Erica Fielder, the founder of Hearts for Inmates, a group that has started a petition in favor of sentencing reform, said at the hearing.

Tennessee

Police misconduct

Nashville voters approved the creation of an independent police oversight board in November. On Feb. 4, GOP lawmakers introduced a bill (House Bill 658) to limit the powers of oversight boards; it would block aspects of Nashville’s initiative. As described by the Times Free Press, the legislation would strip such oversight boards of subpoena power and prevent the requirement that a certain share of members belong to specific demographic groups. “We as Republican leaders want the state and our communities to know that we support the men and women in blue on the front lines fighting crime and protecting us as we sleep safe at night,” said House Speaker Glen Casada, who is co-sponsoring the legislation. Theeda Murphy, an organizer with Community Oversight Nashville, told the Political Report in October that subpoena power was essential to ensuring a “full and complete and independent investigation.” She also explained the requirement that four board members come from “economically distressed neighborhoods” as a way to achieve “significant representation from people who are left out.”

January 2019

New Jersey

Police misconduct

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into a law a bill (Senate Bill 1036) that requires that all cases of people who are killed by police officers or who die while in custody to be investigated by the attorney General’s office rather than county prosecutors. The bill had passed the legislature in December. “This bill is needed because like every institution where human interaction is at the forefront, there is a susceptible element of perceived corruption that can exist,” said Assembly member Britnee Timberlake. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, an appointee of Murphy, had testified against the bill. The first death that will be investigated under this law is that of a man shot in Passaic on Jan. 31.

New Mexico

Rights restoration

Most prior efforts to restore voting rights to people with a felony conviction have taken partial steps, such as restoring people’s rights once they finish serving their sentence. But legislation introduced in New Mexico (House Bill 57) follows a more empowering route: It would eradicate felony disenfranchisement and enable people who are incarcerated, on parole, and on probation to vote. This was a core demand of the 2018 prison strike. “It’s our voice in decisions that are being made that impact our lives and who represents us,” said Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico. The legislation is in Democratic hands, since they won full control of the state government in November.

The legislation passed its first hurdle in the state House in late January.

Oregon

Death penalty

The death penalty is inscribed in Oregon’s state Constitution, which prevents its outright abolition via regular legislation. But Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that some Democratic lawmakers are pushing to shrink its scope. Possible changes include creating a higher standard in jury deliberations and shrinking the definition of aggravated murder (the only homicide charge that can result in the death penalty in Oregon) so it covers fewer circumstances.

California

Bail reform, police accountability, and sentencing

A series of California criminal justice reforms went into effect on Jan. 1. Their scope and the ease with which they will be implemented now hinge in part on actions taken by local officials. The Political Report probes early tests of the impact of the new legislation that are meant to improve police transparency (AB 748 and SB 1421), to shrink the felony murder rule (SB 1437), and to facilitate expungement of marijuana convictions (AB 1793).

Nevada

Rights restoration

A 2017 law (AB 181) went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, restoring the voting rights of Nevadans who have received a so-called dishonorable discharge from probation or parole. Many people receive a dishonorable discharge because they are unable to pay court fines and fees.

However, The Appeal: Political Report explains that Nevada retains a harsh system even with this change.

New Mexico

Rights restoration

Kentucky has one of the highest disenfranchisement rates in the country, and it also stands far and above all other states in terms of excluding African Americans. A Democratic State Senator said last month that he will introduce a new constitutional amendment providing for automatic rights restoration in the upcoming session, which is just one of the paths ahead for reforming the state’s disenfranchisement rules, the Appeal: Political Report writes.