How are new policy reforms changing America's correctional facilities?

Some policies have been carefully and deliberately constructed, while others are lacking the same thoughtful craftsmanship


Throughout the U.S. there have been several new policy reform propositions in corrections that reconsider the length of jail sentences, classification of crimes, disclosure of felony crime history in hiring practices and the reinstatement of voting rights for parolees. With the contemplated reforms come controversies about the actual impact of incarceration on crime reduction. Many are hopeful that present and future reforms will reduce the skyrocketing crime rates in our country. While punishment is a successful teaching tool for most of the law-abiding population, for the criminal there is question as to punishment and its efficacy. Still, correctional administrations are certainly counting on sentence reforms to reduce their annual budgets and operating expenses in a time of mass incarceration.

The need to reduce corrections spending has been a large motivation and cause for recent attention to policy change at the state level. Many lawmakers have experienced a shortage in available personnel resources to maintain the continually growing numbers in their jail population. As a result, sweeping policy reforms have taken place across the United States over the last several years. Some propositions have been carefully and deliberately constructed, while others are lacking the same thoughtful craftsmanship.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a modest decline in the incarcerated population in 24 states between years 2013-2014. In 2015, there were 12 states that made changes to sentencing policies in an attempt to also reduce prison populations. Some of these policy changes were made to clarify sentencing and punishment which is believed to be a contributing factor in mass incarceration. Four states reclassified felonies to misdemeanors, five states modified their mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses and at least one abolished the death penalty.

Finding a forward path toward an effective crime reduction solution is where the American criminal justice system seems to have lost its way.
Finding a forward path toward an effective crime reduction solution is where the American criminal justice system seems to have lost its way.

Violent crimes and early release in California

California law enforcement, district attorneys, prosecuting attorneys and most local community leaders were strongly opposed to Proposition 57. Under the guise of a plan for increased rehabilitation opportunities for offenders and reduced expenditures for the California Department of Corrections, the ballot initiative was passed by nearly two-thirds vote of Californians.

There are debates about whether California voters were thoroughly informed and educated about Proposition 57 to consider the actual consequences for our communities. The most basic facts of the proposition indicate that the authors crafted it to apply to only non-violent crimes. However, examples of the crimes which have been defined as non-violent by the California Penal Code include:

  • Rape by intoxication
  • Rape of an unconscious person
  • Drive by shooting
  • Assault with a deadly weapon
  • Domestic violence involving trauma
  • Hate crimes causing physical injury
  • Lewd acts against a child
  • False imprisonment of an elder through violence

In order to assure Californians that violent, convicted felons will not be paroled by droves into communities, the California Penal Code should be amended to establish appropriate definitions of violent crimes, such as rape or lewd acts. This is a critical detail which the voting public seemed to have missed. Proposition 57 was constructed using the current PC details which states rape of an unconscious person is not a violent crime.

Additionally, the California gubernatorial appointed parole board now has the power to recommend release of inmates, which the public would most likely have never thought could be released so early into their sentence. There has been a severe disagreement between Governor Brown and California district attorneys on mandatory sentencing. With the passage of Proposition 57, adult prisoners are now going to serve even less time on their mandatory sentences. Proposition 57 has given the power to the state parole board to ultimately modify sentences and allow the early release of prisoners. Governor Brown firmly believes that his carefully constructed ballot measure will add a “dose of deliberative thought” to a release determination process often driven by elected district attorneys.

Drug reclassification in Connecticut

House Bill 7104 was constructed by Governor Malloy and passed in 2015. This bill includes the restructuring of penalties for drug possession crimes and provides sentencing alternatives for incarcerated inmates. It includes new penalties for individuals in possession of cocaine, heroin, marijuana or any quantity of illegal drugs. Possession of these illegal drugs is now considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in custody for the first time offender. Sentencing also has expanded options such as home confinement and restructured sentencing according to the exact quantity of the drug in the defendant's possession. Individuals with a drug possession charge history found with illegal drugs in their possession again, within 1500 feet of an elementary, secondary school or licensed day care center may be charged with a felony. With this new charge, they are subject to a mandatory two-year jail term.

Punishment relaxed in Oklahoma

House Bill 1574 passed and loosened the reins on Oklahoma’s once excessive punishment for individuals with a history of drug convictions. Under the new Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act, the prior sentencing for an individual with prior felony drug violations was a mandatory minimum of 20 years with a maximum sentence of life in prison or a life sentence without parole. This sentence has now been limited to simply life without parole.

Chronic overcrowding in Nebraska

Legislative Bill 605 focuses on overcrowding and reducing recidivism in Nebraska’s prison system. The reform action to ease the prison numbers came in the form of raising property thresholds for many theft offenses, and mandatory orders for misdemeanors be served at the county jail level unless ordered to be concurrent with a felony charge in state prison, with an expansion of probation terms. The bill is estimated to save the state of Nebraska about $300 million in future costs.

Restoring voting rights in several states

In addition to the countless sentencing reform policies, several states are granting convicted felons the right to vote. California granted voter rights to approximately 60,000 convicted felons as detailed on the Assembly Bill 109 which passed in 2011. Following behind California, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 980 which restored voting rights to about 40,000 Maryland citizens who are on felony probation and parole supervision. Kentucky Governor Beshear issued an executive order which restored voting rights to an estimated 100,000 individuals who had non-violent felony convictions.

During the last decade, the environment among politicians has evolved from being “hard” or “tough” on crime to an adoption of policies which have softened any edge of crime punishment. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum lies a comprehensive solution. Finding a forward path toward an effective crime reduction solution is where the American criminal justice system seems to have lost its way.

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