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 reform this system—on anything from sentencing guidelines and the death penalty to disenfranchisement and police accountability—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. More information is added weekly.

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

Tracking legislation Placeholder
Tracking legislation

Feb. 2019

Iowa

Voting rights

A month after Governor Kim Reynolds proposed a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of people who complete a sentence for a felony conviction, the Des Moines Register released a poll this week that found that 64 percent of Iowans favor such a reform. But Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal that some lawmakers are demanding that the proposal include a requirement that people pay all restitution before regaining their voting rights. This would create a system where differences in financial ability affect whose rights are restored. Reynolds has the ability to act by executive order to re-enfranchise thousands of Iowans, as Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack did in 2005. Governor Terry Branstad, Reynolds’s Republican predecessor, rescinded Vilsack’s order, and Reynolds has chosen to keep it that way.

Maryland

Youth justice

Children as young as 7 can face charges in the state’s juvenile justice system. Proposed legislation (House Bill 659) would restrict the circumstances under which children younger than 12 can be incarcerated. “Detention may not be continued beyond emergency detention for a child under the age of 12 years unless the child is alleged to have committed an act that, if committed by an adult, would be a crime of violence,” says the bill. This is just one of a range of bills introduced in the legislature this year to reform the juvenile justice system; House Bill 418, for instance, seeks to make the transfer of minors into adult court more difficult.

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.

North Dakota

Youth justice

North Dakota’s legislature is close to adopting House Bill 1039, which would raise to 10 from 7 the age at which children can be referred to the juvenile justice system. “Just the types of services an 8-year-old needs is so different than the juvenile court system,” said Kelly Armstrong, a Republican in the U.S. House who was a state senator when similar legislation was debated last year. While that 2018 legislation did not pass, things have moved quickly so far in the current legislative session: The House approved the bill by an overwhelming vote of 88 to 5 in January, and the Senate Judiciary Committee moved the bill forward last week.

Michigan

Youth justice

Michigan is one of four states where the age of juvenile jurisdiction is below 18. In 2018, efforts to increase the age at which one is automatically tried as an adult from 17 to 18 failed in part because of disagreements over how much of the cost of the juvenile justice system counties should bear as opposed to the state. Lawmakers have now introduced a slate of new bills for the 2019 legislative session. The Raise the Age Coalition devotes a web page to listing the 28 bills that have been filed in both legislative chambers to increase the age of juvenile jurisdiction and to make corresponding changes to the state’s funding and detention system.

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 me 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.”

Wyoming

Death penalty

On Feb. 1, the Wyoming House approved legislation to abolish the death penalty (House Bill 145) on a vote of 36 to 21. The chamber had rejected similar bills in each of the past five years. But this year’s bill, whose main sponsors are Representative Jared Olsen and Senator Brian Boner (both are Republican), has many more co-sponsors than past iterations—and one of those co-sponsors is House Speaker Steve Harshman, a Republican. Harshman was not a co-sponsor of the 2018 effort; in fact, he voted against moving the bill forward, as he had in 2016. There is no one on Wyoming’s death row since a federal judge struck down the death sentence of Dale Eaton in 2014. In an interview with the Casper Star-Tribune, Olsen argued that the state’s death penalty statutes is nevertheless a drain on state finances and questioned its need as a deterrent. “There are a plethora of legislators who are stuck in the way that this is the only effective way to curb murders, even when the statistics show it’s not,” he said. The bill now moves to the state Senate.

Florida

Sentencing reform

Ron DeSantis did not articulate precise positions on criminal justice during his campaign for governor in 2018, but in the campaign’s final stretch he appeared to be comfortable with the state’s incarceration rate and hostile toward sentencing reform, according to reporting by Andrew Pantazi. Since he took office in January, articles have continued probing DeSantis’s views. Samantha Gross writes in the Miami Herald that DeSantis is breaking with his predecessor Rick Scott’s support for the restrictions that the legislature imposed on the legalization of medical marijuana approved by voters in 2016; DeSantis reportedly supports repealing the ban on marijuana taking a smokable form, and is otherwise looking to drop Scott’s legal appeal in defense of these restrictions. In addition, John Kennedy writes in the Florida Times-Union that DeSantis is seen as a wild card between campaign advisers and sheriffs who oppose sentencing reform, and conservative groups and lawmakers like state Senator Jeff Brandes and Americans for Prosperity that wish to push for it in the coming legislative session. Among the latter group’s targets: the state’s mandatory minimum guidelines, its harsh restrictions on early release, and the low threshold for when theft is considered a felony-level offense. The adoption of Amendment 11 by voters in November expanded the range of possible reforms by enabling them to be retroactive.

January 2019

New Jersey

Police misconduct

On Jan. 30, 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.

Montana

Driver’s license suspensions

The ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity have joined forces to support legislation (House Bill 217) that would stop the state of Montana from suspending people’s driver’s licenses for a failure to pay most court fines and fees that have stemmed from unrelated offenses. In introducing the bill, Republican state Representative Casey Knudsen called the practice a “modern-day debtors’ prison.” This Montana push emulates legal and legislative efforts in other states. In July, Maine adopted legislation to end the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for a failure to pay most court fines. And in July, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued a ruling that bars Tennessee from revoking licenses. “If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect,” Trauger wrote.

San Francisco (city)

Surveillance

San Francisco considering ban on government use of facial recognition technology: A city lawmaker introduced legislation yesterday that includes a blanket ban on city departments purchasing or using facial recognition technology. The Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance, proposed by supervisor Aaron Peskin, would also require departments to seek approval from the Board of Supervisors before using or buying surveillance technology, a requirement already in place in cities like Berkeley and Oakland. The legislation would require annual audits of surveillance technology to ensure its proper use. The proposal comes at a time when issues of error and bias in facial recognition technology are getting increased attention. Peskin portrayed the bill as an extension of the “Privacy First Policy,” approved by voters in November, which created limits and imposed transparency requirements on the collection and use of personal data by city agencies and by companies doing business with the city.

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. The first reforms the state’s sexual offender registry, in part by creating a new board that is meant to assess risk, and in part by creating a process with which people on the registry can petition to be removed from it. Connecticut currently lacks such a removal process. The second reforms sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses by enabling deviations from mandatory minimums in some circumstances, and by toughening penalties in others. The third is more of a medley. It includes: reducing the sentence associated with some misdemeanor convictions from 365 days to 364 because a full one-year sentence can be grounds for ICE deportation proceedings (Section 1), improving the parental and visitation rights of incarcerated parents (Sections 3-6), restoring the voting rights of people who are on parole (Section 7), and automatically erasing some of the records of people convicted while minors (Section 8). The proposal to shorten misdemeanor sentences for immigration reasons already received a favorable vote by the Judiciary Committee in 2018 (HB 5544), but it was then not called for a vote in the state House.

Arizona and Virginia

Early release & parole

Activists held a rally at the Arizona state capitol on Jan. 22 in support of House Bill 2270, a bill sponsored by Republican state Representative Walt Blackman that would change the state requirement that people serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release by lowering that percentage for most incarcerated people. “You’re surrounded by the best examples of the truth of the matter, which is that people can and do change for the better and they deserve an opportunity to come home to us,” Caroline Isaacs, program director at American Friends Service Committee’s Arizona office, told the Arizona Daily Star.

The Virginia Prison Justice Network also organized a rally in front of Virginia’s state capitol building on Jan. 14 in support of reinstating the availability of parole. Various bills have been introduced in the current legislative session to advance this goal, as the Capital News Service details.

New York

Marijuana

A first look at the governor’s proposal to legalize marijuana in New York: The Buffalo News has published an explainer about Andrew Cuomo’s plan to legalize adult recreational marijuana use. Among its insights, the article notes that Cuomo’s legal basis for the plan is that legalization is “necessary to properly regulate and control” marijuana production and sale for the purposes of public health and “social equality.” The plan calls for creating an agency called the Office of Cannabis Management “to limit, or not to limit” the number of licenses, regulate potency, and even halt cultivation and sales in the case of a public emergency. The plan would allow counties and cities to opt out, and not permit cultivation or retail sale facilities. Cuomo projects the state will, after a few years, make $300 million a year from three taxes on the marijuana supply chain. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a sponsor of the Assembly’s recreational marijuana legalization bill, is optimistic about the plan, but wants to see more specifics about, for example, steering some tax revenues to “communities devastated by mass incarceration.”

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

Marijuana

The Albuquerque Journal’s Mike Gallagher has written a five-part series on the conversations happening in New Mexico on whether to legalize marijuana. The second part covers the debates regarding the policy details. That includes how to regulate and tax sales and cultivation, but also how to confront the harm caused by the criminalization of marijuana and to redress past marijuana convictions. The fifth part investigates the viability of reform in the current legislative session: The new Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham cautiously supports legalization, and Democratic gains in the state House make it likely that the chamber would pass such a measure. But odds are dicier in the state Senate; legalization proponents would need to win over either one Democrat who is on record as opposing it or one Republican.

Nevada

Sentencing reform

While some states debate how to accelerate decarceration trends, Nevada is confronting the continued growth of its prison population. The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice (a panel that includes lawmakers, judges, law enforcement representatives, and reform advocates) approved a report on incarceration in Nevada on an 11-4 vote. According to the report, which you can read in full here, 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. In addition, the report documents very stark increases in the incarceration rate of women and in the number of women incarcerated for violating probation or parole conditions.

The report also lists 25 policy recommendations that “would avert 89 percent of the projected [10-year] prison population growth,” a far cry from many reformers’ decarceration goals. Many of the proposals target the severity of sentences and charges sought for some low-level offenses, for instance by tripling the threshold at which a theft would count as a felony rather than a misdemeanor; others seek to loosen parole or probation violations. These recommendations are now largely in the hands of Democrats, who seized control of the state government in November. At the time, Nevada Current’s Michael Lyle reported on a broader range of reforms that Democrats may push through in the coming legislative session.

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).

Meanwhile, the landmark law that overhauled the money bail system and provoked ire on the left and the right has been put on hold until voters decide its fate in November 2020. Bail industry associations, fighting to remain relevant, prevailed in their effort to delay implementation, but criminal justice advocates are not fighting to save the law in its current form because of concerns that without sufficient checks, it could result in more people incarcerated pretrial, not fewer. Senate Bill 10 relies heavily on risk assessment tools that have not yet been developed, and it gives judges tremendous discretion to decide who stays in jail pending trial. Reform groups opposed to SB 10 have distanced themselves from the bail industry’s referendum efforts, and are instead pushing for new court rules from the Judicial Council to prevent racial bias in the use of risk assessment tools.

Maryland

Sentencing guidelines

Maryland governor Larry Hogan announced new programs in January aimed at lengthening prison sentences and getting tougher on crime. He specifically announced several programs to target violent crime and gangs in Baltimore, including a joint operations center that will house a “strikeforce of 200 law enforcement personnel from various federal, state and local agencies,” including the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and Homeland Security, according to CBS Baltimore.

Hogan will also fund more hiring of city police officers. He will expand Project Exile, a federal program to target repeat offenders, in the hopes that more people will be tried in federal courts to get longer sentences. Hogan said he is also “trying to change the state law so our mandatory sentences match federal law.”

December 2018

Kentucky: Dec. 2018

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.

Oregon: Dec. 2018

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.