2016: States Home to Success on Effective Justice Reforms

By Jenna Moll, Deputy Director, U.S. Justice Action Network

In 2016, the U.S. Justice Action Network made an aggressive push in 12 states to safely reform sentencing laws, reduce mandatory minimums, expand effective treatment and rehabilitation options, and improve the reentry process for returning citizens in our justice system.

With more than 1.3 million of the Americans currently behind bars in state facilities, our state work is crucial in order to actually impact the country’s incarceration rate. And every time we add another state, red or blue, to our list of successes, we make it harder for Congress to ignore the bipartisan calls for action.

The reason for our success is no secret but it is unique. We have used our right-left coalition and national allies to bring together law enforcement officials, faith-based community leaders, and stakeholders from all walks of life who recognize the pressing need to make changes.

We’ve had great successes throughout the year — and we haven’t taken our foot off the gas yet. Just last week in Ohio, the legislature passed fixes to the civil asset forfeiture system in the state that better protect due process and property rights for Ohio residents. A victory, right before the buzzer in 2016.

Here’s where we and our allies made the most progress this year:

Removing Barriers to Employment

For far too many individuals, leaving prison does not represent a fresh start. They continue to be haunted by their past. Criminal records are hindering the ability for millions to get a job, a home, and lead a life free from crime. Working with policymakers, partner organizations and law enforcement in states, we pursued a number of strategies to address this problem.

In Pennsylvania, we had success in championing an expungement bill that with bipartisan, bicameral support reformed one of the most out-of-place laws in the country. Through our efforts on legislation in Louisiana, and our work with Governor Mary Fallin in Oklahoma, we increased the number of states that have “banned the box” to 24, expanding the opportunities available to those with a criminal record.

Our work in Louisiana led us to a program at the Angola prison that trains incarcerated individuals for specific jobs and ensures they have meaningful employment leaving prison. Check out the moving story of how this incredible program works.

Changing Laws, Changing Lives

In Kentucky, bipartisan state leaders came together to enact aggressive expungement legislation, and Governor Matt Bevin joined Governors Nathan Deal of Georgia and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma at our Changing Laws, Changing Lives Forum at the Republican National Convention — offering a platform for conservatives and the rest of the country to listen to their voices and follow their lead.

Refocusing Our Justice System

What we prioritize through our justice system says a lot about our values as a nation. Long sentences have been shown not to improve public safety, which is why we set out to curb costly mandatory minimums and reverse our ballooning prison and jail population. Our work in Iowa was a first step in the right direction, reforming mandatory minimums for certain drug and property offenses and setting the stage for further progress in 2017.

Our coalition and allies supported legislation in Maryland that reformed sentencing for drug possession and distribution crimes, which passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House. And in Minnesota, a state with one of the fastest growing prison populations in the country, our coalition on the ground united with law enforcement to pass the most significant reforms to drug laws in decades.

Sentencing an individual who’s committed a low-level drug offense to a prison term actually is more likely to result in increased risk of recidivism rather than rehabilitation. That’s why these reforms, in addition to the increased access to drug courts and diversion programs passed in Oklahoma, put the focus of our justice system on treatment and rehabilitation over taxpayer waste. This reform is smart, common sense, and easily replicated in states across our nation.

Bringing State Successes to D.C.

We brought Governors John Bel Edwards and Dannel Malloy, and U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Mike Lee (R-UT) together at our Google Summit on Justice Reform to highlight some of these state successes and set the tone for the year to come.


Looking ahead, we’re already focused on long-term success, educating lawmakers and interest groups in states and pressing them to coalesce around robust legislative recommendations that can make the change voters seek. We’re involved in this process across the country — in Illinois with the bipartisan State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, in Louisiana and Pennsylvania with their Justice Reinvestment Initiatives, and in Ohio through the Criminal Justice Recodification Committee.

In 2016, a clear roadmap for passing successful reforms at the state level was created, strengthened, and expanded. We know that by harnessing the power of bipartisan, state-based coalitions and engaging law enforcement, the business community and faith leaders, we can set the agenda for justice reform and gain a consensus that few other issues can achieve in the current political climate. That’s why in 2017, our organization is continuing efforts in almost a dozen states and expanding our efforts on the state level to include Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.

At times, progress on the legislative level seems to move at a snail’s pace, in light of the overwhelming levels of bipartisan support from voters. But it’s clear that 2016 was a successful year for the justice reform movement at the state level. Across eleven states, we’ve seen thirty-six bills that we and our coalitions championed signed into law by Governors from the right and the left, and we are incredibly proud of this work. And even more proud of those allies with whom we’ve had the honor of standing side-by-side.

I call that progress — and I look forward to even more in 2017.

The U.S. Justice Action Network is the first action organization in the country to bring together progressive and conservative partners, collaborate with law enforcement, and employ federal and state-specific lobbying, public advocacy, and public education efforts to pass sweeping criminal justice reforms.