States Lead on Justice Reform: Will Congress Follow?

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

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States have long been lapping Congress (two or three times over) when it comes to implementing effective, proven sentencing and corrections policies that improve public safety, reduce crime, and safely cut the prison population. As we take stock of the progress that has been made after just the first quarter of 2017, that contrast is even clearer. States across the country — north and south, east and west, led by Republicans and Democrats — have prioritized justice reform as a part of their legislative agenda this year, while Congress continues to maintain the status quo: a justice system that fails to provide an adequate public safety return.

Lawmakers at the state level — both governors and state legislators — have witnessed how smart-on-crime policies can reduce the number of individuals who head to prison in the first place, instead leveraging more effective alternatives, and cut the number of those who return to prison after serving their time. The interest in pursuing these policies cuts across partisan and geographical lines, and there’s no better example of how states have prioritized them than with a brief review of the State of the State addresses given this year.

When you have governors like Doug Ducey in Arizona, Matt Bevin in Kentucky and Andrew Cuomo in New York all using their highest-profile platform to call for a more effective public safety system, this is more then a trend. These governors recognize the need to make real changes that can keep the public safe, right-size the prison population, and effectively rehabilitate prisoners to return to society and find meaningful employment.

States like Michigan are leading the charge, having already passed a significant reform package this year that will improve public safety and break the cycle of incarceration. Kentucky has topped off their legislative session with a reentry bill that will put more people back to work and prevent them from returning to prison. The state will look to build on this step in coming years.

Arizona and Iowa are in the midst of the legislative process: while Iowa’s House has unanimously passed reforms to mandatory minimum sentences, Arizona’s House unanimously passed civil asset forfeiture reforms. Both those measures are under consideration by the Senate in their respective states.

Other states like Louisiana, Ohio, and Illinois are just getting warmed up. In Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, the legislative session is about to start. Lawmakers will consider recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Task Force to reduce the prison population and keep communities safe. Officials in Ohio are considering options for certain low-level offenders sentenced to a year or less in prison, as well as improvements to supervision and the handling of technical violations. The statehouse in Illinois is reviewing proposals from the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to safely reduce the prison population and reduce crime.

All of this activity has happened in just the first three months of the year. It’s clear that in 2017 states will continue to lead the way, while Congress continues to be left behind.

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