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, which is not meant to be exhausted, keeps track of important legislative developments in the current sessions.
Information is added weekly. The page is edited by Daniel Nichanian.
Explore these developments chronologically below, or geographically by clicking on this interactive map:
Note: the Appeal: Political Report has a special series on state legislative efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement.
While calls to improve police accountability have intensified nationwide, New Jersey is heading in the opposite direction. The Appeal reported this month on a bill that would expand qualified immunity, the doctrine that largely protects law enforcement officers from legal accountability, to police officers at private colleges and universities. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Assemblymember Roy Freiman, passed the Assembly but has yet to be considered in the Senate. “They’re trying to protect themselves from the fallout of police violence rather than trying to make sure police violence never happens in the first place,” Micah Herskind, an activist who opposes the bill, told The Appeal.
Since Louisiana’s 2018 referendum, Oregon is the only state where people can be found guilty by a nonunanimous jury. And the state took no action this year to end this anomaly. Reform looked to be on the way when even the Oregon District Attorneys Association endorsed changing the state Constitution, and when the House passed a bill to put the matter on the 2020 ballot. But the Senate adjourned without adopting it. The Associated Press reports the issue is sure to return next year. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to consider a case involving a nonunanimous conviction, and some advocates say they will press the issue in the legislature once more.
Prosecutorial decisions typically function as a black box, which makes it difficult to assess fundamental matters like the extent of racial disparities in a given office. Connecticut is set to change this. Last week, Governor Ned Lamont signed legislation that WNPR says is the “first in the nation to mandate the collection of prosecutorial data statewide.” Prosecutors will now need to collect demographic data pertaining to charging and sentencing decisions, the use of diversion, and their plea offers.
Samantha Michaels reports in Mother Jones that in Rhode Island, anyone who is serving a life sentence is considered to be “civilly dead,” and therefore deprived of all civil rights. This includes the right to complain in state court about mistreatment. Rhode Island is the only state where the status of “civil death” is applied so literally, but legislation to end it has failed every year since 2014. Will 2020 change this? Another bill that failed this year would have abolished life without parole for people under 18.
Oregon became the latest state to act against it last week when Governor Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 1013, which considerably narrows the range of capital offenses. The bill is not retroactive, but the governor has the authority to commute existing death sentences.
Oregon is the fifth state to restrict, halt, or abolish the death penalty since October. Read more in the Appeal: Political Report.
Oregon overhauled its youth justice system, advancing in one swoop goals that reformers have had for decades. Senate Bill 1008 abolishes life without parole for minors, expands opportunities for early release, and restricts the prosecution of children as adults. Reform advocates emphasized that plenty of work remains, especially insofar as SB 1008 is not retroactive. But they also said this as a major paradigm shift in the state.
The battle continues over Senate Bill 437, the 2018 law that reduced the conditions under which someone can be convicted of murder for an act they did not commit. Nearly all DAs like San Diego’s Summer Stephan have since fought the law, denying potential relief for thousands convicted under the felony murder doctrine. But Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, just sided with the legislature last week: His office filed a legal brief defending the reform’s constitutionality.
Oregon allowed the use of attack dogs in cell extractions, which led to the mauling of a man in 2017. A bill to ban this practice was adopted by the legislature in the spring and signed into law by Governor Kat Brown in June. A Human Rights Watch report already examined the use of attack dogs against incarcerated people in 2006. “Some prisoners will wrap blankets, towels, and even toilet paper around their limbs to try to protect themselves from dog bites,” the report documented.
The death penalty will remain abolished. Ever since the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2016, there have been legislative rumblings to reinstate it. Democrats govern the state, but enough support such a measure to make it at least viable. The House actually adopted such a bill in 2017; and two of the four initial sponsors of a 2019 version were Democrats (William Carson and Bruce Ennis). Governor John Carney has said he may sign a reinstatement bill. But the legislature adjourned for the year without taking any action on this.
Asset forfeiture, medical release
Hawaii Governor David Ige has vetoed a series of reforms. He killed a measure to restrict civil asset forfeiture and another for terminally ill incarcerated people to be eligible for medical release. “There’s longstanding deference to police and law enforcement in our state,” said Mandy Fernandes, policy director of the ACLU of Hawaii. Ige allowed a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana to become law without his signature. The bill falls short of reforms other states have recently implemented. Read more in the Political Report.
Alaska continues to roll back the decarcerative reforms it adopted in 2016, Zachary Siegel reports in The Appeal. The latest law was championed by Mike Dunleavy, a Republican who was elected governor in 2018 on a platform to “Make America Safe Again.” Siegel reports that it “makes simple drug possession an arrestable offense and adds years of sentencing on to various crimes that reforms had previously reduced.” These changes may lead the state to reopen Palmer prison, which was closed in 2016. Alaska had already reversed some decarcerative reforms in 2017.
New Jersey has restricted solitary confinement, a practice by which state prisons torture people for months or years on end. A new law, signed by Governor Phil Murphy last week, creates a limit of 20 consecutive days and 30 days over a 60 day-period. New Jersey is the first state to adopt such a time limit through law; Colorado has implemented a 15 day-limit administratively. Vox calls it “the most progressive legislative reform to the practice of solitary confinement in the U.S.” New Jersey’s reform was championed by activists organized around the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ CAIC). Advocates pushed for a time limit in New Mexico and New York this year, but those proposals failed.
A new law will enable the state attorney general to prosecute firearm violations in Philadelphia. The move, which dilutes DA Larry Krasner’s authority, applies only to Philadelphia and expires in two years, right when Krasner’s current term ends. The bill’s GOP sponsor implied to The Intercept that he was motivated by his view that Krasner, who has used probationary programs, was not “enforcing the law.” Democratic Governor Tom Wolf signed the bill into law. In response to the ensuing controversy, Attorney General Josh Shapiro tweeted that he had asked for concurrent jurisdiction in the entire state, and that he did not plan “to use it to act unilaterally or go around DA Krasner.” Confronted on this issue, Shapiro said he would support repealing the law.
Efforts to legalize marijuana collapsed in the final day of the legislative session. But the legislature adopted a backup bill, which Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will sign. It decriminalizes the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana (as opposed to one ounce previously) and the act of smoking marijuana in public. It reduces these acts, now misdemeanors, to a violation subject to a ticket and fine. In addition, the bill provides for the automatic expungement of existing records: The state will vacate past convictions over offenses that are no longer deemed criminal.
NV, WA, and beyond
Nevada and Washington became the fifth and sixth state to take action against prison gerrymandering, which dilutes the power of urban areas and of communities of color. Their laws requires the state to count incarcerated people at their last known address for purposes of redistricting, as opposed to where their prison is located.
But the clock is ticking for other states to take such action, as the next round of redistricting is around the corner. Read more in the Political Report.
Jail conditions and sheriffs
Alabama sheriffs can no longer personally pocket the funds meant to provide food to people in jail. A new law, sponsored by Republican Senator Arthur Orr and signed by Governor Kay Ivey, ends a rule that incentivized sheriffs to provide subpar meals and then keep leftover money. This longstanding practice drew renewed outrage in 2018, when an AL.com investigation by Conor Sheets revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin had pocketed $750,000 of jail food funds and bought a $740,000 beach house.
Read more in the Political Report.
The GOP-run House passed a bill in April to decriminalize some the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But it was then ignored in the Senate, and is now dead since the legislature has adjourned. Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate agenda, staunchly opposed the bill. Texas did expand medical marijuana, significantly lengthening the list of qualifying medical conditions.
Texas also legalized hemp, distinguishing it from marijuana based on THC concentration. But an unintended consequence is that marijuana cases now require knowing a product’s THC level. Many DAs say they lack the resources and capacity to make this determination; the state’s GOP leaders contest this.
Connecticut could have been the first state to make phone calls from prison free. But the legislature adjourned without adopting this bill, despite organizing by the group Worth Rises and a shout-out from Senator Elizabeth Warren. Making a 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, an expense that piles up and compounds the isolation of incarcerated people. Rachel Cohen reported in The Intercept that the bill was held up by the stonewalling of Governor Ned Lamont and the lobbying of Securus Technologies, a prison telecommunications company. Cohen later reported that the proposal failed for reasons unrelated to its content and may return next year.
Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that shrinks DAs’ power to jail victims of sexual offenses or domestic violence to compel them to testify. The law prohibits such “material witness warrants” in misdemeanor cases; for felony cases, it imposes a list of conditions before someone can be detained.
The law was narrowed from its original version, which banned detention altogether, in part because of the opposition of the head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.
Cooperation with ICE
A bill to curtail the agency’s reach was weakened after Democratic Governor Jared Polis objected to restrictions it imposed on local cooperation with federal immigration authorities. His office warned in April that he would veto the bill unless it was stripped of some of its most important provisions, including a ban on counties joining ICE’s prized 287(g) program. Polis signed the narrowed version in May. But immigrants’ rights advocates argue that ICE contracts were already illegal under state law. Read more in the Political Report.
In December, the Sixth Amendment Center released a report funded by the legislature documenting that Oregon’s public defense system violates the U.S. Constitution. How is the legislature responding? By creating a task force to study the issue. Lawmakers gutted a bill that would have expanded the state’s defense system and limited public defenders’ caseload, replacing those provisions with a task force that would last through the end of 2020; advocates warn this could derail any other reform push for years.
The two whitest states (Maine and Vermont) are currently the only jurisdictions with no felony disenfranchisement, a practice with racist roots. That perverse situation could change this year if D.C. abolishes disenfranchisement. Kira Lerner reports on a new bill that would enable people to vote from prison. Every member of the City Council signed on as a co-sponsor. D.C. already authorizes people to vote while on probation and on parole.
Read more in the Appeal.
Ambitious reforms with bipartisan support failed all year because of influential GOP power-holders and state prosecutors. In June, GOP Governor Doug Ducey vetoed legislation that would have narrowed the circumstances in which prosecutors can treat defendants as repeat offenders. That status triggers stacked charges and harsh sentences. Posecutors lobbied against the legislation, leading state lawmakers to complain that they had exhibited duplicitous behavior and reflexively opposed reform.
Read more in the Political Report.
Gravity knives, sentencing reform
New York adopted two new laws in early June:
The state’s ban on gravity knives is no more: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill sponsored by Assemblymember Dan Quart that decriminalized their possession. The ban “has swept up tens of thousands of New York City residents, overwhelmingly people of color, for owning what critics argue are common work tools,” The Appeal reported in March.
The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act is a new law that allows sentencing judges to consider whether a crime was connected to abuse that a defendant suffered. Read more in The Daily Appeal.
The legislature adjourned in May without adopting reform legislation. A proposal to stop suspending driver’s licenses over an inability to pay court fines and fees did not make it past either chamber (despite bipartisan success elsewhere), nor did a proposal to consider indigency before imposing fines and fees.
Other bills that drew attention but passed neither chamber included a five-year cap on probation terms and a proposal to enable people on parole to vote, as is the law in 18 other states. Earlier this year, the GOP-run Senate also killed a bill to legalize marijuana.
Illinois is set to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana. The legislation sets up it sets up a streamlined pardon process to expunge existing convictions, which will relieve thousands from the lifelong implications of past prosecutions. It also contains other provisions meant to repair the harm caused by prohibition.
Read more in The Appeal: Political Report.
Colorado is lowering drug possession to the misdemeanor level. This new law, effective in 2020, reclassifies possession of nearly all Schedule I and Schedule II substances, including heroin and fentanyl. This significantly reduces penalties associated with possessing these drugs. It shortens sentences and shifts people from prison to county jails.
Read more in The Appeal: Political Report.
New Hampshire has abolished the death penalty Thursday. The Senate voted one week after the House to override Governor Chris Sununu’s veto. The law passed the Senate with no vote to spare, but that was enough to make New Hampshire into the 21st state to have gotten rid of capital punishment.
Read the Political Report on New Hampshire’s move, as well as on the latest developments elsewhere.
In 2016, Oklahomans approved State Question 780, which reduced drug possession and some theft offenses to the misdemeanor level. But SQ 780 did not apply retroactively; it gave no relief to people with past convictions. But in May, the state adopted a new law that makes SQ 780 retroactive. Hundreds of people could be quickly released, and tens of thousands will be eligible for an expungement.
Read more in the Political Report.
Colorado and Nevada
Colorado and Nevada adopted new laws this week that will restore people’s voting rights as soon as they are released from incarceration, as opposed to doing so at later stages of the legal system (if ever). These reforms deal a double blow to a system that excludes and marginalizes millions of U.S. citizens nationwide.
Read more in the Political Report.