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The view from 35,000 feet
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 02/04/2008

Sentencing Last year, many states across the country reached or came dangerously close to their prison overcrowding and corrections budget breaking point. According to a new report, The State of Sentencing 2007, at least 18 of them addressed this “moment of reckoning” by either reviewing or reforming their criminal sentencing policy in significant and alternative ways.

The recap of last year’s major sentencing policy developments was created by The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit organization that promotes reforms in sentencing law through research and advocacy, particularly the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.

“I really believe the prison overcrowding issue goes back to our sentencing policies passed in recent decades,” says Sentencing Project policy analyst Ryan King, who wrote the report. “While I think that it is important to find little ways to reduce prison populations, in many cases a lot of state efforts are only tinkering around the edges. If we want to bring around a sustainable reduction in the number incarcerated, we need to take the view from 35,000 feet.”

Taking that broader view was actually the most common development of 2007. According to the report, nine states created oversight committees to address their criminal justice systems. Oklahoma established them to monitor state reentry programs, while Wisconsin created a task force to study racial disparity in the justice system.

“Obviously, with oversight committees the recommendations made are not binding, but I’m optimistic,” King says, “particularly because in a number of these cases they have a very clearly defined mission.”

Some of the more headline-grabbing developments were the decisions to release inmates early. The report says Arkansas, California, Nevada, and Wisconsin all approved early release for some low-risk prisoners. Nevada notably extended the maximum number of days a sentence may be reduced for good time, which are those earned for good behavior, substance abuse treatment, or vocational training. In a more symbolic move, New Jersey’s decision to abolish the death penalty also made waves last year.

“Ultimately what’s significant about that is it sends a message,” adds King. “New Jersey actually abolishing the death penalty means it’s no longer an abstract concept for states that have had that conversation. This was a concrete development that sends a clear message to other states that if New Jersey can do it, we can do it.”

The report touches on a number of reentry initiatives implemented last year. In Hawaii, the successful Strengthening Keiki of Incarcerated Parents program is receiving more funds, as are other programs that encourage family stability. On the parole side, California implemented an “earned discharge” program for persons on parole for low-level, non-violent offenses. Those meeting certain screening criteria can be discharged from parole after serving six months.

“Granting more discretion to the parole officer and intermediate sanctions for parole violators seem to be popular ways to address the recidivism and revocations of parole issue,” King says. “I think states are recognizing it’s in the interest of the state and the individual to keep people in community as long as possible and keep them out of prison, so they have the opportunity to work and to contribute to society. It’s one of the areas going forward that you will continue to see developments.”

The report also addresses developments in the treatment of juveniles. Connecticut changed the definition of a “child” so that 16 and 17-year-olds once treated as adults will be processed in juvenile court. Colorado established a juvenile clemency board to review requests from juveniles convicted as an adult in criminal court.

The report concludes with policy recommendations to further curb overcrowding, recidivism, and rising costs.

“Right now we’re at a crossroads,” King says. “We’ve got to recognize that the status quo cannot continue. I think the formula going forward needs to have a lot more investment in alternative solutions and reform and a lot less of just locking people up.”

The recommendations specifically ask for reduced parole revocations, more reentry program investment, more options to reduce the amount of time served in prison, and an end to the mandatory minimum sentence. This may seem like a lot to ask, but the Sentencing Project believes these reforms will be the formula needed to tackle this moment of reckoning.

Related Resources:

Read The State of Sentencing

More on New Jersey’s decision

The Las Vegas Sun responds to the “good time” policy


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