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.

Information is added weekly. (Last update March 14: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York.)

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.

March 2019

Delaware, Utah

Expungement reform

Criminal convictions have ramifications far beyond the explicit sentences imposed on individuals, impeding their access to housing and blocking them from jobs for the decades that follow. Reformers are pushing this year to expand and/or automate expungement processes in a number of states. In Delaware, new legislation would considerably increase people’s eligibility for expungement; state law currently provides adults no opportunity short of a pardon to have past convictions expunged. And in Utah, the legislature this month unanimously passed a “Clean Slate” bill, similar to one Pennsylvania adopted last year, to automate some of its expungement process. This is because 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

In March, a Florida House committee approved a measure that could significantly curtail the gains of a constitutional amendment that voters approved last November, restoring voting rights to about 1.5 million people with felony convictions. It would require everyone to pay all court fees and costs before becoming eligible to vote, even if the fines were not handed down by a judge as part of the sentence. State Republicans are also trying to carve out broad exceptions to who can regain the right to vote, fighting to expand the category of people excluded for “murder” to include those convicted of manslaughter, vehicular homicide, and attempted murder from ever voting again, Kira Lerner reported for The Appeal. The bill that advanced this week would not broaden the definition of murder, but it would add dozens of sex-related offenses to the list of crimes that constitute “felony sexual offense,” such as trafficking and locating an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school. It’s possible that the state Senate could expand the definition of murder. 

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.

Arkansas

Death penalty

The Arkansas Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation (Senate Bill 464) to 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. In an article in the Daily Appeal about this bill, Sarah Lustbader wrote 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

Marijuana reform

The state is considering a series of reforms to decriminalize marijuana and expand access to medical marijuana. On Monday, a legislative committee held a hearing on House Bill 63, which does the former. Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment that the bill’s goals are “to see no arrests, no jail time and most importantly no criminal records.” Marijuana Moment writes that House Bill 63 would reduce possession of up to one ounce of marijuana it to a civil offense punishable with a fine. However, prosecutors could still file misdemeanor charges for a third possession violation. Michael Arria reports in The Appeal that the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas is an obstacle to reforming marijuana laws.

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 Mexico

Rights restoration

House Bill 57, the proposal to fully abolish felony disenfranchisementmoved past one House committee in January. But on Monday, the Judiciary Committee approved the bill while narrowing it: The amended version enfranchises people once they are released from prison, but not incarcerated people. State Representative Damon Ely, a Democrat who sits on both committees that heard the bill, had indicated during the aforementioned January hearing that he did not support incarcerated people’s voting rights. Still, this amended version is a major step as well. It would enfranchise people on parole and probation, who represent the vast majority of people disenfranchised in New Mexico, according to a Sentencing Project report.

Idaho

Pretrial detention

The Idaho House approved a bill this week that requires that “all pretrial risk assessment tools shall be transparent” and all records of their use be “open to public inspection, auditing, and testing.” The bill would also do away with the “trade secret” exemption that makes it nearly impossible for anyone challenging the validity of the assessments to obtain the details of the algorithms used. While the use of risk assessment tools has been a part of many bail reform efforts, there are concerns, as Beryl Lipton reports in MuckRock, that “computational models, like those used in the risk assessments, have a substantial downside and could automate and reinforce prejudices against groups that have long been subject to discrimination. Thirty-three of Idaho’s 41 counties use some form of pretrial risk assessment.

February 2019

Indiana

Innocence and exoneration

The Indiana House unanimously adopted legislation (House Bill 1150) to provide exonerated individuals $50,000 of restitution for each year they were wrongfully incarcerated. The bill is sponsored by Representative Greg Steuerwald, a Republican, who calls it “a matter of fairness.” However, exonerated people would qualify for this restitution only if they forego all litigation against the state. The Hendricks County Flyer reports that HB 1150 would apply retroactively to already exonerated individuals, but only if their lawsuits are still unresolved and only if they agree to drop them. Kristine Bunch, who was exonerated in 2012 after being incarcerated for 17 years, has founded the nonprofit Justis 4 Justus to assist exonerated people in Indiana. She told the Flyer that although the restitution provisions in HB 1150 are important, asking people to choose between these funds and a lawsuit evades accountability. “Saying you can’t have a civil suit in addition to receiving help … it’s like they’ve gotten away with it,” she said.

Utah

Immigration 

Under federal law, noncitizens who receive a sentence that includes at least one year of detention face deportation. What this means in Utah is that people can be deported over a misdemeanor-level offense: State law provides for a maximum of 365 days in jail for Class A misdemeanors. On Feb. 25, the state House unanimously approved legislation (House Bill 244) that would reduce the maximum detention associated with such misdemeanors by one day (from 365 to 364). This would prevent misdemeanor convictions from triggering such dire immigration consequences. The bill, whose chief sponsor is Republican Representative Eric Hutchings, now moves to the state Senate. Other states, such as California in 2014, have taken this step or, like Connecticut, are considering doing so now.

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, Montana, New Hampshire, Washington

Death penalty

Four state legislatures voted on legislation to repeal the death penalty between Feb. 16 and Feb. 21, with mixed results. 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.

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.

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 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.

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.