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 change or overhaul this system—on anything from sentencing and the death penalty to disenfranchisement and drug policy—happen in legislatures, far from the spotlight that accompanies federal action. This page, which is not meant to be exhaustive, keeps track of important legislative developments in the current sessions.
The page is written by Daniel Nichanian.
Explore these developments chronologically below, or geographically by clicking on this interactive map.
This page, launched and continually updated from early 2019 to June 2021, will no longer be updated as of June 2021.
Explore the Appeal: Political Report’s special coverage on state legislative efforts against felony disenfranchisement, on death penalty abolition, on prison gerrymandering, and on state reforms of ICE cooperation.
Colorado: Felony murder
Felony murder, a charge that is used against people who were present at a murder that they did not commit, will be punished less severely in Colorado. A new law, signed by Governor Jared Polis this week, has lowered its classification so that it will no longer trigger an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole; instead, it will carry sentences of between 16 and 48 years. The law is not retroactive, though; that is a major difference from when California reformed its felony murder statutes in 2018, enabling the release of some incarcerated people.
Washington, D.C.: Lengthy sentences
Washington, D.C., enacted the Second Look Amendment Act, a reform that gives hundreds of people who are serving very lengthy sentences a chance to be released earlier than scheduled. Prior to this reform, D.C. was already allowing “people who committed serious crimes before their 18th birthday to petition the court for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years,” The Appeal explained in December. The new law raises the cutoff age to 25. This makes D.C. the first jurisdiction to effectively end life without parole for people who committed a crime before age 25, a milestone for efforts to restrict life sentences.
Maryland: Youth sentencing
Maryland’s legislature abolished the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for children. Maryland is the 25th state to end this type of sentence. The law, which applies retroactively, will enable anyone convicted of a crime they did before the age of 18 to be considered for a new sentence after 20 years of incarceration.
Washington: Voting rights
A new law will enable all formerly incarcerated Washingtonians to vote. Signed into law by the governor in April, it enfranchises people on probation and parole.
The Political Report talked to State Representative Tarra Simmons, a formerly incarcerated lawmaker who championed the legislation.
New Mexico: Qualified immunity
New Mexico barred the qualified immunity defense in state courts via House Bill 4. Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that often shields police departments from civil lawsuits over misconduct. Only Colorado had adopted a law outright to bar qualified immunity in state courts; Connecticut narrowed the doctrine but left in important caveats.
New Mexico: Marijuana
New Mexico adopted new laws to legalize marijuana and expunge some past convictions. Other social equity provisions were removed, to be repackaged in a separate bill. New Mexico is the third state in a stretch of 13 days to adopt such legislation, an illustration of the changing tide on the issue: Only two states had legalized marijuana via legislation before this stretch.
Georgia: Youth Sentencing
House Bill 272 would have “raised the age” until which young people can be prosecuted as minors to 18. The bill looked to be in promising shape when it passed the Georgia House in early March, but the Senate did not pick-up the bill before the end of the state’s 2021 legislative session. As a result, Georgia will remain one of only three states in the country to continue prosecuting all 17-year-olds as adults, alongside Texas and Wisconsin.
Lawmakers adopted the Maryland Police Accountability Act, overriding a veto by the GOP governor. The legislative package makes complaints about the police more transparent and tightens the standards of what use of force is considered appropriate. It also repeals Maryland’s “Bill of Rights” for police officers, a set of rules said to shield police from accountability. The reform is meant to constrain the latitude of police chiefs to disregard disciplinary actions. Police union officials fought the legislation.
Mississippi has adopted a law that will give a shot at early release to thousands. It will either make them newly eligible for parole (it lifts the parole ineligibility imposed in 1995 for some offenses), or make them eligible for parole earlier than they would have been. But the law comes with carve-outs, and even for those who may benefit, Mississippi retains tremendously long sentences. Under the new law, some people convicted of a nonviolent offense may need to wait as long as 10 years for a hearing, and as long as 25 years for an armed robbery.
Texas: Life sentences
A bill passed by the state House would enable people convicted for crimes they commit as minors to request parole more quickly. Texas has already abolished sentences of life without parole against minors, but some need to wait as long as 40 years to be eligible. This bill, which moves to the Senate, would shorten that wait: People convicted as minors would be eligible for parole after at most 20 years. (It carves out anyone convicted of killing at least two people.)
Virginia adopted a series of sentencing reforms in April. They include House Bill 2290, which ends the enhanced penalties for people repeatedly convicted of misdemeanor theft; HB 1936, which ends the practice of punishing all felony robbery by at least five years in prison, though some robbery convictions will retain very long term; and SB 1315, which will allow defendants to present evidence of mental illness or autism spectrum disorder in court. Defendants have until now been barred from doing this, which can significantly complicate some people’s ability to mount a defense that reflects what happened. Also, HB 2038 is meant to restrict incarceration over probation violations.
Virginia has adopted a law to legalize marijuana. On April 7, the legislature approved requested amendments made by the state’s governor; this will speed up legalization to July of this year, rather than wait until 2024 as provided by the original bill. Some home growth will also be legal this summer.
That said, retail sales will have to wait until 2024, a delay that marijuana advocates are denouncing; they also point to other areas of improvement such as the continued criminalization of young people caught with marijuana. The law will also provide for the automatic expungement of past convictions.
New York: Marijuana and solitary confinement
New York adopted two major laws on March 31, The Appeal reports.
It barred placing people in solitary confinement for more than 15 days, which is the strictest limit on its use through a law anywhere in the country. The law is the culmination of years of activism in New York.
New York also legalized marijuana. The issue has languished for years in Albany, amid a legacy of widescale enforcement. Reform advocates are now celebrating the law as a win for social justice. The package includes a provision to expunge past convictions over behavior that will now be legal. It also bars the police from invoking the smell of cannabis to justify vehicle searches, an excuse the police have used aggressively.
Kentucky: Youth prosecutions
A new law in Kentucky will end any mandatory transfer of minors into adult court. Transfers will happen through decisions made on each individual case by the court system. (The vast majority of states allow mandatory transfers.)
Ever since a wave of “tough on crime” laws in 1996, Kentucky has automatically sent children age 14 and older to adult court when they are charged with offenses involving firearms. And the adult prosecution of children has disproportionately harmed Black youth.
This new law would not bar adult prosecution, though. At least the discretion to transfer a child into adult court will not solely rest on the prosecutor, as is the case in many states; a judge will have to approve a prosecutor’s request.
Virginia: Death penalty and voting rights
Virginia, the state that has executed the most people throughout the nation’s history, has now abolished the death penalty.
This is a landmark for the nationwide movement against capital punishment, since Virginia is the first Southern state to do this. And state advocates are celebrating it as a milestone for racial justice, The Appeal reports.
Virginia’s governor also took executive action this month to enfranchise formerly incarcerated Virginians.
North Carolina: Youth prosecutions
Lawmakers are considering bills to raise the minimum age at which children can be prosecuted. The state currently allows children as young as 6 to be criminally prosecuted, the lowest age set in the nation.
The Herald-Sun reported on a 6-year-old child brought to court for having allegedly picked-up a tulip in someone’s backyard; a disproportionate share of children under the age of 11 who face criminal complaints in North Carolina are Black.
Utah: Pretrial rules
Utah has repealed the bail reform it adopted in 2020, which may ramp up pretrial detention. As the Political Report reports, the 2020 law encouraged judges to opt for the least restrictive mode of detention they deemed adequate, and reduce the reliance on cash bail.
Another new law in Utah will bar the public release of mugshots until there is a criminal conviction, with some carve-outs. Route Fifty reported on the bill in February. The bill Republican sponsor appealed to the presumption of innocence. Utah’s choice to lean into pretrial detention threatens that presumption, though.
Two new laws should reduce the number of people convicted of felonies. One increases to $1,000 from $500 the threshold of the value at which theft is prosecuted as a felony rather than a misdemeanor; another increases to $2,500 from $1,000 the amount of unpaid child support that can be prosecuted as a felony. A felony-level conviction carries far heavier consequences.
Another new law will protect women from being placed in solitary confinement when they are pregnant and six weeks after giving birth. The Lexington Herald Leader provides more context on the legislative session.
A major push to end mandatory minimum sentencing derailed in Virginia. The state’s 2021 legislative session ended with no final action, dooming the reform for the year, even though each legislative chamber had adopted separate bills to restrict mandatory minimums.
Advocates who back the reforms stressed that mandatory minimums fuel higher incarceration rates, and that they grant prosecutors more leverage to pressure defendants into guilty pleas. But the two bills were of very varying scopes.
Virginia: Solitary confinement
Virginia will not restrict solitary confinement this year. The House failed to take up a bill that passed the Senate in February and would end long-term solitary confinement. The Appeal reported on this legislative effort, writing about the harrowing case of a man who was held for more than 600 days in solitary confinement in a state prison. The bill derailed in part because the Virginia DOC claimed it would take $23 million to implement the legislation, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
Governor J.B. Pritker, a Democrat, signed into law an omnibus bill that upends many areas of the criminal legal system. The law, championed by the Legislative Black Caucus in the legislature’s lame-duck session in January, was years in the making due to the work of a large coalition of activists and advocacy groups.
Bail reform: Its most emblematic provision is an end to cash bail: Illinois will no longer connect pretrial release to the fulfillment of financial conditions that defendants are often unable to meet. Once the bill goes into effect, Illinois will be the first state to outright end cash bail. But that will not be until 2023. NBC News reports that Illinois advocates are optimistic that the bill avoids some of the pitfalls of other reforms, which replaced cash bail with rules that local advocates warned would not shrink pretrial detention.
Prison gerrymandering: The law bars prison gerrymandering—a practice that skews political representation toward whiter and more rural areas—in the drawing of legislative maps. But a clause considerably delays the reform’s implementation.
Driver’s license suspensions: People will no longer see their licenses suspended over unpaid red-light and speed camera tickets, and help thousands regain their drving privileges. This is amid national momentum against suspending driver’s licenses.
Felony murder: The law will narrow the felony murder doctrine, but it will not bring relief to people already incarcerated because it will not apply retroactively.
Policing: The law requires more thorough records of misconduct. It also tightens certain policing rules, including a ban on chokeholds, though such statutes have been insufficient elsewhere given the broader context of impunity.
New York: Sex work and policing
New York has repealed a statute, known as the “walking while trans” ban, that gave New York police officers wide discretion to arrest people for “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” It enabled “police to decide, for instance, that a woman’s skirt is too short, or that she’s been lingering too long on one street corner,” as Amanda Arnold wrote in The Cut. Trans women were primary targets for arrests.
The new law, sponsored by Democratic lawmakers Brad Hoylman and Amy Paulin, comes out of sustained activism and litigation by sex worker advocates and by groups such as the Legal Aid Society, DecrimNY, and the New York Transgender Advocacy Group.
New Jersey: Marijuana
A package of new laws, adopted in late February, will legalize marijuana in New Jersey and implement the ballot initiative that voters approved in the fall. Areas that have faced more arrests over marijuana will be designated as “impact zones” and receive more of the funding generated by mariuana sales, the Asbury Park Press reports. In New Jersey, as elsewhere, the prohibition of marijuana has been enforced through extreme racial disparities.
A big sticking point in legislative negotiations was the rules for people under 21, who are barred from possessing or buying marijuana. The final compromise does not include civil penalties and fines, but it makes marijuana possession by someone under 21 subject to a written warning and referral to community service groups.
Last fall, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation that would have set up a pilot program for health professionals to respond to some emergency calls instead of the police. The bill’s chief sponsor, Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, has now reintroduced the bill, known as the CRISES Act, in California’s 2021 session.
To push it through, she and her allies have to navigate Newsom’s resistance. Piper French reports in The Appeal: Political Report about the larger battles that this bill has come to encapsulate. This dispute, she writes, “will give Californians another opportunity to confront the debate around whether alternatives to incarceration should originate within police departments.”
Massachusetts has repealed a state mandate that there be police presence in schools, Rachel Cohen reports in The Appeal: Political Report. A coalition of advocates formed over the summer to press for this change. The law enables them to take their case for ending police presence directly to local school superintendents. Some activists are now already pressing forward.
With Massachusetts’s reform, Cohen reports, Florida and Maryland are the two remaining states that mandate some police presence in schools. Legislative efforts to change that are ongoing.
South Dakota: Life sentences
South Dakota’s state Senate made history in February when it passed a bill, championed by Republican state Senator Arthur Rusch, that would have ended life without the possibility of parole sentences for anyone under the age of 25. South Dakota would have been the first state with such a reform. The legislation has since been killed in the state House, however.
California: Law enforcement
A new bill introduced by state Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat, would lift the requirement that a sheriff’s candidate have a background in law enforcement, Katie Fernelius reports in The Appeal: Political Report. The measure may pave the way for more sheriff candidates who want to challenge mass incarceration, but are currently banned from running. Advocates note that sheriffs frequently run unopposed.
Oregon: Voting rights
Oregon lawmakers have introduced a bill to enable people to vote from prison, reports The Appeal: Political Report. Advocates are hopeful that the stars are aligned for Oregon to join Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., as jurisdictions with no felony disenfranchisement. “Prison is about the loss of liberty, not the loss of citizenship,” said an incarcerated advocate.
Advocates are planning efforts on this issue this year in other states, such as Virginia. Some Democrats in Georgia have filed a bill to end disenfranchisement, although the GOP runs the state government there, unlike in Oregon.
National: Cracking down on protests
Tennessee adopted a new law last year that criminalized activities tied with protests. Now, a disturbing trend has emerged in 2021 of other state legislatures considering bills meant to crack down on protestors, and using the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol as cover, The Appeal reports.
In Missouri, a Republican senator is proposing legislation that “would release a motorist from liability if they injure someone who blocks traffic during an unlawful protest,” writes the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
Ohio: Youth justice
Ohio will no longer sentence minors to life without the possibility of parole, and it will curtail sentences that effectively amount to the same, writes The Appeal: Political Report. Youth justice advocates are celebrating Senate Bill 256 as their latest win in nationwide efforts to keep kids from spending their life in prison.
Ohio is the 24th state that will no longer impose life without parole sentences on minors, but advocates are warning that there is more work ahead. Advocates in other states, such as Illinois and Maryland are pushing for similar reforms.
Washington: Three strikes
Hundreds of people are serving life sentences in Washington State because of its harsh “three strikes” statutes. A law the state adopted in 2020 enables prosecutors to seek to resentence people, if they desire to do so, but the Seattle Times reports that some prosecutors such have made it clear they will not consider revisiting people’s sentences. One lawmaker says this could lead to “justice by geography.” But the legislature has chosen to not make its tweaks to the “three strikes” system retroactive, one reason people who are incarcerated cannot appeal through a new uniform statewide standard. (Washington prosecutors’ statewide association lobbied to prevent retroactivity in 2019.)
Michigan: Fines and fees
Michigan will no longer suspend driver’s licenses when people fail to pay their traffic tickets. In taking away many people’s main mode of transportation, these suspensions cut off access to work and make it harder for people who are impoverished to pay off debt; many people also then get prosecuted if they are stopped while driving with a suspended license. The new law, signed last week, adds to the national momentum against license suspensions. It does not entirely end the suspension of driver’s licenses over court debt, though: The state will continue suspensions over a failure to pay fines and fees accrued over some criminal convictions.
Michigan: Sexual offense registry
A federal court ruled in 2016 that Michigan’s registry requirements for people convicted of sexual offenses were unconstitutional, compelling the state to either revise its statutes or have its sexual offense registry struck down. In December, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a bill that tweaked the state’s system to save the registry’s existence. The ACLU of Michigan had urged a veto: “Registries are counterproductive and may increase offending because they make it extremely difficult for registrants to obtain a job, find housing, and rejoin their families, sabotaging their efforts to become productive members of the community.”
National: A 2020 retrospective
Read the The Appeal: Political Report’s year-end review of the changes states adopted in 2020.
In this challenging year, state officials largely forgoed the sort of reforms that would have significantly emptied prisons amid the public health crisis or confronted police brutality. Still, on other issues there was headway, and states set many new milestones: Some decriminalized drug possession, automated expungement, repealed life without parole for minors and the death penalty, and ended prison gerrymandering, among other measures.
New York: Fines and fees
In a New Year’s Eve win for criminal justice reformers, a new law will end the state’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid fines. In taking away many people’s main mode of transportation, these suspensions cut off access to work. And they disproportionately affect Black New Yorkers.
But the governor weakened the bill as a condition of signing it. The legislation, as originally passed by the legislature, would also have ended driver’s license suspensions when people fail to appear at traffic court hearings.
Drug reforms on Nov. 3
In a national first, Oregon voters approved an initiative to decriminalize drugs on Nov. 3. Measure 110 makes low-level drug possession a civil offense, punishable by a fine. Zachary Siegel wrote for the Political Report that the result marks “a momentous shift in favor of a public health-focused approach to substance use, and a turn away from longtime policies that incarcerate people.” Advocates warn more work is needed to reduce law enforcement and inequalities.
Also, Oregonians supported a measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes, and Washington, D.C., mostly decriminalized psilocybin.
Marijuana reforms on Nov. 3
Ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana triumphed on Election Day. They succeeded in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. And Mississippi legalized medical marijuana. But much remains to be decided regarding the shape that marijuana legalization will take in these four states, Kaila Philo writes in the Political Report, including what the new revenue will fund and what will happen to past convictions.
South Dakota advocates are now pushing for the state to expunge marijuana-related convictions. In New Jersey, they are pushing officials to advance social equity more directly. And many states are looking ahead to 2021 and 2022.
California: Voting rights
California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 17, a ballot initiative that restores the right to vote to anyone who is not presently incarcerated. The measure was put on the ballot by the legislature. California becomes the 19th state, alongside Washington D.C., to enfranchise all adult citizens who are not in prison. Colorado, Nevada, and New Jersey all adopted similar reforms in 2019. Some advocates are vowing to press forward to abolish disenfranchisement altogether.
Initiatives on incarceration
Multiple states held referendums that touch on sentencing or incarceration on Nov. 3. California rejected Proposition 20, which would have rolled back some decarceral sentencing reforms adopted. Oklahoma rejected State Question 805, which would have prevented prosecutors from seeking harsh sentencing enhancements against some defendants. Nevada passed Question 3, a measure that will make the state’s pardon process a bit easier.
New Jersey: Incarceration
Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a bill (S2519) that will significantly reduce the prison population, and do so within weeks. The bill is the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s deadly devastation in its prisons and jails. It will grant many people incarcerated in the state with early release. “Reducing our prison population will undoubtedly further our mission to combat COVID-19,” Murphy said. More than 2,000 people will be released on Nov. 4, according to his office, and an additional 1,000 will be released through January.
When Vermont legalized marijuana possession in 2018, it did not also put in place a legal and regulated system of marijuana sales, unlike what has happened in many other states. This year, Vermont’s legislature passed a bill to implement such a system, and Governor Phil Scott allowed it to become law without his signature. Marijuana Moment details the fights that went into the legislation, and the logistics of the system of retail sales and dispensary licenses it will authorize. Separately, Scott signed a bill that will automatically expunge the convictions of people convicted of possessing marijuana.
Virginia: Marijuana, parole, and law enforcement
Virginia adopted a law that bans law enforcement from stopping and searching a vehicle on the basis of the smell of marijuana. Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession in the spring but it still allowed such searches, which lead to punitive and racially disparate law enforcement, and advocates pushed for further change.
Governor Northam also signed a law that makes some people who are terminally ill eligible to be considered for parole. Virginia ended the parole process in the 1990s but has taken incremental steps to revive it this year.
Northam also signed into law a package of legislation that reforms policing rules, including a ban on no-knock warrants, a bill to strengthen the decertification process, and a bill authorizing jurisdictions to create civilian oversight boards with subpoena power. Virginia is now the second state to have a law banning no-knock warrants, after Oregon.
Many of the bolder bills that advocates were pushing for, though, including qualified immunity reform, derailed during the special session
Michigan: Expungement reform
Michigan has adopted a major package of legislation that will enable hundreds of thousands of state residents to clear their criminal records. The package expands the range of cases which people can expunge and streamlines the petition process. This includes marijuana-related convictions for acts that are no longer illegal since marijuana was legalized in 2018.
It also makes expungement automatic for many misdemeanors and some felonies, though after a prolonged wait time. Known as “Clean Slate,” the reform will apply retroactively, though the automated expungements will begin in two years.
Once it is implemented, eligible Michiganders will see their records expunged without having to apply or file a petition. The immense majority of people eligible for an expungement do not apply because of cost, lack of information, or administrative complexity. A study published last year found that 90 percent of Michiganders eligible for an expungement had not applied.
According to the tracking of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, Michigan is the sixth state to adopt a law that automates at least some expungement.
Michigan also eliminated its ban on people receiving food assistance benefits (SNAP) if they have multiple drug-related convictions.
California: The 2020 session ends
Governor Gavin Newsom ended September by signing, and vetoing, a flurry of bills pertaining to the criminal legal system.
Here are 10 bills that Newsom signed into law.
—Assembly Bills 3070 and 2542 will make it harder for prosecutors to exclude Black people from jury trials, and that will make it easier for defendants to appeal a conviction or sentence on the grounds that it is racially discriminatory. The Appeal: Political Report lays out the significance of these reforms for the fight against racism in jury selection.
—AB 1950 caps probation terms at one year for misdemeanors and two years for felonies. Probation terms are stringent and can result in incarceration over technical violations.
—Senate Bill 203 has made California the first state in the nation to require that minors consult with legal counsel before a police interrogation.
—AB 1506 shifts the responsibility of investigating police killings of unarmed people onto the state’s attorney general, instead of local DAs.
—SB 32 provides that transgender people be detained in a prison based on their gender identity; it also enables the state to deny this due to “management or security concerns.”
—SB 823 takes a step toward phasing out California’s youth prisons. Its existing facilities will largely stop admitting minors starting in July 2021; minors will be detained instead in facilities run by county governments.
—AB 3234 makes two separate moves. First, it expands eligibility for the state’s elderly parole process; most notably, people will be eligible at age 50 instead of 60. Second, it enables judges, without a prosecutor’s assent, to steer people charged with misdemeanors into a pretrial diversion program, meaning that completing the program would result in the dismissal of the charges.
—In 2017, California had barred the imposition of some fines and court fees on minors and on their parents or guardians, effective January 2018. SB 1290 now vacates the fines and fees that had already been imposed as of that date.
Newsom vetoed the CRISES Act, which was going to set up a pilot program for mental health or medical professionals to respond to some 911 calls instead of the police. He said the bill located the pilot program in the wrong state agency. Sydney Kamlager, the lawmaker who introduced the bill, vowed to press ahead. “We will continue to pursue community alternatives to police response that are not controlled by law enforcement,” she said in a statement.
He also vetoed SB 555, which would have capped the cost of phone and video calls for incarcerated people, as well as capped the inflation of commissary items, with an eye to fighting the exhorbitant fees incarcerated people have to pay, in what is a nationwide problem.
Finally, Newsom vetoed SB 1220, which would have mandated that DA offices maintain a Brady list of officers with a history of lying or misconduct; Newsom said this is too costly to implement.
Florida: Criminalizing protests
Governor Rick DeSantis unveiled harsh legislation that would make activities like blocking a road a felony. The bill would also make it a felony to have been present in an assembly during which people or property were injured, as well as a charge for which bail should not be granted. And the bill would shield people who cause others’ death, for instance by running them over with a car, if they show they were “fleeing from a mob.” Other states have been moving to similarly shield people who run someone over.
The Department of Corrections is proposing for legislation that would cut the state’s prison population by 30 percent within the next fiscal year. Proposals range from “minimizing prison time for some nonviolent offenders to increasing time off for good behavior to bringing back a version of parole,” the Seattle Times writes. The twin contexts of this conversation are the state’s fiscal crisis, and its staggering racial inequalities. Four percent of the state’s population is Black, but Black residents are 18 percent of those who are in prison, and 25 percent of those who are in prison for at least 15 years.
California: Formerly incarcerated firefighters
Incarcerated people are often sent to battle dangerous wildfires for minimal pay, but they are prohibited from becoming firefighters once they leave prison. California adopted a new law last week that loosens those rules. But The Appeal reports that the law comes with major hurdles—the process is not automatic, there are carve-outs, and prosecutors can object—due, again, to the vocal opposition of police unions, state DAs, and firefighters unions.
Pennsylvania has an exceptionally harsh probation system that traps people in long periods of supervision, as the Philadelphia Inquirer documented in the fall of 2019. A bipartisan bill to overhaul the system appeared to have momentum, but it was gutted, and ultimately even the weakened bill did not make it to the governor’s desk. The Appeal reports on what happened.
Hawaii: Driver’s licenses, and more
Hawaii will no longer punish people unable to pay off court debt by restricting their access to driver’s licenses.
Until now, people who owed fines and fees have been barred from renewing their licenses. This practice compounds underlying inequalities. In taking away people’s main mode of transportation, it cuts off access to work and make it harder to pay off debt in the first place.
House Bill 2750, which became law in Hawaii on Sept. 15, ends this practice.
One caveat: Individuals who are already barred from renewing their licenses will have to petition the court to lift that. Someone who incurs unpaid court debt in the future, though, will not have to take additional action.
This adds to a nationwide stream. Hawaii is the 10th state to end the link between court debt and driver’s licenses, according to tracking by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national organization that testified in favor of Hawaii’s bill, as did state groups like the Hawaiʿi Health & Harm Reduction Center, the Community Alliance on Prisons, and the ACLU of Hawaii. Oregon and Virginia adopted similar laws in 2020; Montana did in 2019.
Governor David Ige, a Democrat, signed HB 2750 into law. He also signed Senate Bill 2193, which expands partial protections against employment discrimination for people with a criminal record, and HB 285, which requires police departments to disclose the identity of officers who are discharged or suspended. But he vetoed a bill that would have expanded work furlough opportunities.
Nebraska: Parole and death penalty
Setbacks for criminal justice reform in Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald reports. Governor Pete Rickets vetoed a bill that would have made people eligible for parole two years before their scheduled release. He also vetoed a separate bill that would have required that witnesses be allowed to see the entirety of an execution; proponents say this is important for there to be accountability if an execution is botched.
Tennessee: Criminalizing protests
The state’s Republican government is cracking down against Black Lives Matter protests. Governor Bill Lee signed into law a bill that toughens penalties for offenses associated with protest activity. In particular, the legislation makes it a felony punishable by up to six years in prison to illegally camp on state property, and creates a mandatory incarceration period for offenses tied with rioting.
Black Lives Matter protests have demanded accountability for the police. Georgia responded this month with a new law that creates a new offense of “bias motivated intimidation” against a police officer. Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said the law was “hastily drafted as a direct swipe at Georgians participating in the Black Lives Matter protests who were asserting their constitutional rights.” Brian Kemp, the Republican governor who signed the law, framed it as a direct response to the current protests. “While some vilify, target and attack our men and women in uniform for personal or political gain, this legislation is a clear reminder that Georgia is a state that unapologetically backs the blue,” he said.
The Missouri Senate adopted a “tough on crime” package, championed by the state’s Republican governor, that would lock up more minors and narrow availability for parole. The package would also eliminate the requirement that St. Louis police officers live in the city. The bill passed 27-3, and columnist Ray Hartmann notes that the three “nay” votes came from the chamber’s only Black Democrats. Senator Jamilah Nasheed, one of the bill’s opponents, told Hartmann that “white Democrats stood alongside white Republicans against Black officials who understand the plight of what is happening in their own communities.” Senator Karla May, who also opposed it, noted that adult prosecutions of minors disproportionately target Black children.
Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, proposed closing two minimum-security prisons to counter the spread of the coronavirus, but legislative leaders stalled the recommendation. Senator Betsy Johnson, also a Democrat, said keeping prisons open was a way to protect jobs. Brown is defending another approach. “We can safely close prisons, keep our communities safe and reduce taxpayer expenses,” the governor said.
North Carolina: “Ban the box”
Governor Ray Cooper signed an executive order last week that “bans the box” in the public sector. North Carolina will no longer ask applicants for state jobs whether they have a criminal record. Legislation to do this in the private sector as well has stalled in the past in the legislature. In the wake of renewed Black Lives Matter protests this spring, the legislature passed two laws pertaining to the criminal legal system, with reformers questioning why the state is not doing more. One enables judges to sentence someone convicted of some low-level drug offenses to less than the mandatory minimum if they get treatment for substance use; the other slightly expands expungement opportunities.
A new Minnesota law introduces new rules against the use of chokeholds and neck restraints, creates a new unit to investigate police killings, and removes the ability of police unions to veto an independent arbitrator.
But MinnPost reports that the bill is far narrower than what Democrats (who control the House but not the Senate) had proposed; some voted “no,” saying that it would not make a meaningful difference on law enforcement.
Efforts to reduce the prison population in Mississippi, a state with an astronomical incarceration rate, suffered a major setback last week. Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have made thousands of incarcerated people eligible for parole. The bill, which passed the GOP-run legislature with bipartisan support, made people convicted of nonviolent offenses eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence, and others after serving 50 percent. Reeves also vetoed a separate bill that would have enabled people to expunge some felony convictions for nonviolent offenses. Reeves won last year in an election system that excluded roughly 10 percent of the state’s adult population due to a felony conviction.
Georgia: Public defense
State lawmakers this month wanted to cut the budget of the state’s public defender system and eliminate its appellate division. Faced with backlash, they backed down. But the leadership of the Georgia Public Defender Office chose to nevertheless dismantle the division, leaving some Georgia advocates alarmed by what this will mean for people’s ability to challenge their convictions.
Oregon: Fines and fees
Oregon ended the suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid fines and fees, a practice that can trigger mounting economic and legal trouble for people who cannot afford their court debt. Oregon is only the ninth state to do so. Criminal justice reform advocates now want public authorities to more fundamentally cut off their budgetary reliance on fines and fees. Read more.
Colorado and Connecticut: Policing
Colorado responded to the Black Lives Matter protests with Senate Bill 217, a major reform detailed by the Denver Post. Most notably, the law ends police officers’ ability to claim qualified immunity in civil suits.
It also empowers the state’s attorney general to prosecute police officers, and sets new requirements for police departments to collect and disclose demographic information on their use of force, among other provisions. It was supported by state organizers such as Elisabeth Epps, an abolitionist advocate.
Connecticut adopted legislation to narrow qualified immunity, with loopholes. Its reform also expands transparency over disciplinary records and eased the process to decertify police officers, and codified a special office to investigate police killings.
New York: Policing
In response to renewed Black Lives Matter protests, New York has repealed Section 50-a, the state’s stringent statute that shields police officers’ disciplinary records. This has been a longtime demand of state advocates in the face of police departments’ ever-expanding use of Section 50-a to refuse disclosures.
New York also adopted a string of other laws. It codified a special prosecutor’s office to investigate police killings, it required officers to wear body cameras, and it criminalized the use of police chokeholds. Such statutes can be difficult to enforce, though, in the context of a culture of impunity, as NPR reports. (States including Connecticut, Iowa, and Minnesota, adopted similar bans this year.)
“Many of [these] policy changes … languished for years because of opposition from influential police and corrections unions,” the New York Times wrote.
The protests that have followed George Floyd’s killing jumpstarted legislative debates around policing. Connecticut Senator Gary Winfield, who has run into police unions when pushing police accountability bills in the past, says he will reintroduce measures such as ending qualified immunity.
Pennsylvania Democrats have introduced a plethora of bills, but the Republican leadership has blocked them from passing.
There’s a partisan confrontation in Wisconsin as well around Assembly Bill 1012, which would tighten criteria around what use of force is considered acceptable, and protect whistleblowers who report police brutality
Louisiana is one of the harshest states when it comes to sentencing people to life in prison. House Bill 173, signed into law by Governor John Bel Edwards, makes a dent into that: Some people who’ve been convicted for crimes they committed as children will now be eligible for parole after 25 years of incarceration if they fulfill a list of conditions. In addition, Edwards signed HB 643, which will allow parole officers to recommend a lesser level of supervision for someone who is on parole after either three or seven years depending on whether the underlying offense is classified as nonviolent; this would not change the fact that the individual remains on parole, setting him up to be reincarcerated even beyond the very lengthy period of intensive supervision.
Virginia has adopted a new law that decriminalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. It also seals past marijuana records.
Starting on July 1, people will face $25 fine instead of facing arrest and criminal charges. This is a big shift: There were more than 46,000 criminal cases in 2018 alone, disproportionately against African Americans. Virginia “will officially become the 27th state to remove the threat of jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” Marijuana Moment reports.
This development follows the 2019 wins by prosecutors who ran on not prosecuting pot possession.
However, the reform falls short of legalization, which many pushed for. In addition, continued stops and policing is all but certain to disproportionately harm African Americans, as it has elsewhere in the country. Groups such as the ACLU of Virginia pushed for the state to go further in decoupling marijuana and law enforcement, and specifically to bar police from citing its smell to justify searching vehicles; legislative leaders resisted such steps.
House Bill 3967 was in danger of derailing when the pandemic sent lawmakers home in March. Instead, the legislature returned last week, promptly picked-up the bill (“unexpectedly,” the Post and Courier reports), and sent it to the governor who signed it within a day.
This new law bans shackling women who are pregnant, in labor, or recovering from giving birth. It also requires that jails and prisons provide menstrual hygiene products. And it restricts the use of cavity searches and solitary confinement on women who are pregnant and within 30 days of giving birth.
Governor Jay Inslee vetoed legislation that would have made Washington the fourth state to adopt a “Clean Slate” law, reports Rachel Cohen in The Appeal: Political Report. It would have kicked off the process of automatically expunging some people’s records, without requiring them to go through a burdensome and often costly application process.
Inslee cited budgetary constrains brought on by COVID-19 to explain his veto, but advocates stress that it is crucial to speed up such reforms now to protect people with criminal records from the pandemic’s economic devastation.
Three pieces of legislation pertaining to the court system and to criminal justice reached some resolution the first week of May.
Two became law without Governor Larry Hogan’s signature (he faced a statutory deadline to act on them or just let them become law); Hogan vetoed the third.
Became law: new restrictions on driver’s license suspensions. Maryland will no longer suspend people’s driver’s licenses if they fail to pay fines and fees linked to traffic violations; the new law provides that the unpaid fines be referred to a collection agency. The bill applies retroactively, so many will be able to regain their licenses. Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, called the law a “first step in reducing this vicious cycle of penalizing poor Marylanders and will enable people to get to work and repay their fines with dignity.” Virginia passed a bigger reform, which ended suspensions over any court debt, last month.
Became law: new restrictions on the use of jailhouse informants. “Time and again, when innocent people go to prison in Maryland, false testimony from jailhouse informants play a role,” the Baltimore Sun reported in February. House Bill 637 will create new restrictions on this practice. Among other measures, the Sun wrote, it will require a judge “to hold a hearing to assess the informant’s credibility” and prosecutors to “maintain a database of jailhouse witnesses.”
Vetoed: a bill to seal low-level marijuana convictions. This bill would have shielded marijuana convictions from public records. It would have benefited an estimated 200,000 Marylanders. Marijuana Moment reports that Hogan justified his veto as payback for lawmakers not passing his unrelated proposals to make state law more punitive toward violent crime. The legislature may override Hogan’s veto in 2021.
Other Maryland bills became law last week, including a ban on housing discrimination based on the tenant’s source of income and a repeal of the ban on sodomy. Hogan vetoed an effort to expand public transit.
State organizers made it a priority to soften the requirement that incarcerated people serve 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for release. A bill that would have reduced that number to 65 percent died without being considered. Also, a bill to end the suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid court debt advanced past multiple committees only to be ignored.
Indiana: Youth justice
Indiana was considering a punitive bill that would have treated more children as adults; it would have expanded the range of cases eligible for adult prosecution, and lowered to 12 the minimum age of adult prosecution for an expanded list of offenses. The Senate passed this bill in February. But the House did not take up the bill before adjourning.
Virginia: Death penalty
Since 2016, Virginia has shielded the identity of the suppliers of execution drugs from public disclosure; this was done because secrecy made it easier for executioners to obtain these drugs. (Other states have followed this approach.) The state then paid skyrocketing prices to a secret supplier to buy execution drugs.
This secrecy was lifted with the adoption of Senate Bill 270 this month. “If there are drugs that are manufactured to kill humans, I think people have the right to know about those drugs,” Democratic Senator John Bell, who introduced the bill, told the Virginia Mercury in February.
Proposals to abolish the death penalty did not move forward in in the state this year, however.
Virginia: Parole reform
House Bill 33 is now law. It grants parole eligibility to most people sentenced between 1995 and 2000. Virginia eliminated parole in 1995, but did not require juries be informed of this when deciding sentences until 2000, when the state Supreme Court issued its Fishback ruling. About 350 people would benefit from this change. Northam asked lawmakers to make the bill effective immediately, rather than in June, because of the pandemic; they obliged last week.
There are two caveats, though. First, Virginia’s parole board seldom grants parole to those who have remained eligible, so expanding eligibility may not be sufficient absent other state changes. Second, lawmakers did not advance more ambitious bills that would have re-established parole in the state more broadly.
While the country debates how to run elections during a pandemic, the GOP-run legislature overrode Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s veto and toughened Kentucky’s existing voter ID law. This move comes four months after Beshear restored the voting rights of about 140,000 people who have completed a felony sentence. The new voter ID law will disproportionately affect that population, Kira Lerner reported in The Appeal in January. “Kentucky does not have any system in place to help those leaving state prisons obtain a valid form of state ID,” she wrote.
Voting rights & prison gerrymandering
Virginia is the latest state to end prison gerrymandering. The new law paves the way for Virginia to draw fairer maps, and adds to a tidal wave of state action against prison gerrymandering that seemed unthinkable just a year ago. Virginia is the nineth state to take action against prison gerrymandering.
The new laws do not change the state’s harsh felony disenfranchisement rules, though. Proposals to abolish or narrow those rules disenfranchisement are on the table, and advocates to press on the issue next year.
Fines and fees
Virginia will no longer suspend driver’s licenses because people owe court debt, thanks to legislation that was signed into law in April.
The state has been suspending hundreds of thousands of licenses each year, disproportionately those of African Americans and lower-income Virginians. The new law severs one of the pillars by which local and state governments enforce the unequal fines and fees system that their revenues often depend on.
Virginia is the eighth state to take this step.
Going forward, Virginia will continue suspending licenses on some circumstances unrelated to driving. Still, last week Northam also signed a separate law that ends suspensions over other grounds than unpaid debt, including over drug-related conviction.
Virginia has adopted two laws relevant to youth justice. One requires that state prosecutors get a judge’s approval before treating kids younger than 16 as adults. But prosecutors will retain sole discretion over whether to prosecute 16- and 17-year olds in adult court. Other states have stripped them of that authority more fully.
Another will allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum statutes when they decide the sentence of minors who are being tried in adult court. It requires judges to consider factors like early childhood trauma when deciding sentences. Before this law, a child’s sentence was effectively settled the moment they were charged and waived into adult court, with no consideration of other factors.
These laws add to a reform Virginia adopted in February to make all children eligible for parole.
Death penalty, prison gerrymandering, and immigration
Colorado hit two major milestones this month, writes the Political Report. It abolished the death penatly, a long-sought win for criminal justice advocates. It also ended prison gerrymandering.
Nationwide efforts on both fronts have considerable momentum. Colorado is the 22nd state to repeal the death penalty, and the eighth to end or restrict prison gerrymandering.
Separately: SB 83 bars ICE from arresting people who are in or on their way to courthouses. “Advocates have documented cases of undocumented immigrants entering courthouses as defendants, witnesses or victims, and then getting detained by ICE agents,” the Denver Post reported in January.
Kentucky’s governor signed into law a bill (HB 327) that directs courts to automatically expunge people’s records when their cases are dismissed or when they are acquitted.
Parole reform and youth justice
Virginia will give hundreds of people who have been incarcerated for decades, ever since they were kids, a shot at petitioning for release. House Bill 35, which was signed into law in February, abolishes sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors; Virginia is the 23rd state to take thsi step. Minors sentenced to sentences that amount to life in prison would also get some chance at parole.
This is a major turnaround for this punitive state, which largely eliminated parole for everyone in 1995; this has fueled Virginia’s growing, and aging, prisons. But the bill’s impact hinges on its parole board no longer denying the vast majority of applications it receives.
Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, is pushing a punitive bill that would increase sentences in Maryland, the Baltimore Sun reports, including imposing mandatory minimums for some offenses, and lengthening penalties for others. But Democratic leaders have signaled they will not go along with the legislation due to its new mandatory minimums. Hogan is now attacking them for endangering public safety. “If they don’t pass the bill, people are going to continue to die,” he said. Hogan targeted Senator William Smith. Indeed, Smith told the Political Report in January that Smith’s abrupt rise to a key committee chairmanship could “shuffle the politics of mass incarceration in Maryland.”
Local organizers have rallied to soften the law that requires that incarcerated people serve 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for release. These efforts moved by only a very small step last year. Now, Republican lawmaker Walter Blackman has now filed a bill that the Phoenix New Times calls “the most sweeping sentence reform for nonviolent offenders in Arizona since 1994.”
Yet bold reform may run into the same cast of opponents as last year; that includes DAs and Eddie Farnsworth, a Republican senator who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. (Farnsworth has said he is not seeking re-election this year, which may alter the state landscape in 2021.)
Iowa and Washington
Voting rights and court debt
A bill to restore the right to vote to all citizens who are not in prison died in an acrimonious debate in Washington State’s Democrat-run Senate, as it had in 2019. Washington will continue to disenfranchise people who are in prison and on probation, as well as people who are unable to pay off their court debt; this is a similar rule as Florida’s 2019 law that critics decry as a poll tax, and which suffered a legal setback this month.
In Iowa, which is the only state to enforce permanent lifetime disenfranchisement over any felony conviction, the Senate keeps stalling on passage of a constitutional amendment in 2019 that would restore people’s voting rights upon completion of their sentences. Powerful senators are signaling that even if they advance the proposal, they plan to at least limit reform by adding carve-outs and tying the restoration to payment of financial obligations. The Iowa County Attorneys Association, the groups that lobbies on behalf of state prosecutors, also backs this proposal to tie voting to debt payments.
Minnesota has an exceedingly high rate of people on probation (the country’s fifth highest), as the Star Tribune reported in 2017. That’s fueled by long terms: Some Minnesotans are sentenced to be on probation for decades; the average length is five and-a half years. This is a problem in terms of the massive number of people under supervision, but also because it drives incarceration as people are sentenced to prison over violations of their probation conditions.
Minnesota’s 11-member Sentencing Guidelines Commission has now approved a presumptive five-year cap on probation terms, with some carve-outs. The cap, a longtime goal for state reformers, comes into effect in August unless it is overridden by the legislature, which is sharply partisan and has shown little ability to pass major measures. (A bill to introduce a cap stalled last year.) The cap would not apply retroactively, however.
New Jersey: Prison gerrymandering, parole, and more
New Jersey has adopted a new law that ends prison gerrymandering in legislative redistricting, reports the Appeal: Political Report. That is the practice of counting incarcerated people at their prison’s location; the new law provides instead that people will instead be counted at their most recent address.
The reform has limits: It only applies to legislative redistricting, and people who are incarcerated remain disenfranchised. New Jersey is the seventh state to end prison gerrymandering for legislative redistricting. The clock is ticking for states to adopt reforms by the next round of redistricting.
Besides ending prison gerrymandering, New Jersey adopted a series of other laws relevant to the criminal legal system this month.
1. Senate Bill 761 enables people incarcerated over some low-level offenses to petition for parole up to six months before their current eligibility date, and to not go through a full hearing; the state estimates that up to 2,000 people a year will qualify for early release as a result.
2. SB 48 tackles the youth justice system. It eliminates fines for offenses adjudicated as juvenile, and it also ends the mandate that minors who finish their term of incarceration serve more supervision. But the bill was considerably weakened right before its adoption last week so that it no longer meaningfully expands early release; an earlier version aimed for the state’s parole board to no longer have a veto over whether minors should be released.
3. SB 2055 makes incarcerated people eligible to apply for state aid for higher education programs.
4. SB 1963 and SB 4970 reform civil asset forfeiture rules. One bill creates a requirement that police departments release quarterly forfeiture reports; the information will be available on a public database. The other requires that people be convicted before their assets are seized, but it only applies to cases that involve under $1,000 in cash or $10,000 in property; that falls quite a bit short of the reform Arkansas adopted just last year.
New legislative efforts take off for 2020
In Arizona, proposals to soften the state’s harsh “truth in sentencing” statutes failed in 2019 but are back this year. The Appeal reports on one GOP-sponsored bill that would reduce the sentences of the people whom Arizona sends to fight wildfires.
In Colorado, a Democratic senator is pushing to reform the state’s felony murder laws by taking life without the possibility of parole off the table.
In Delaware, advocates are planning a wide-ranging push after 2019 successes.
In Florida, lawmakers have filed bills to restrict the circumstances in which children can be detained, restrict felony murder, curb driver’s license suspensions, enable people sentenced while younger than age 25 to get a “second look,” and curb mandatory minimum laws, including for people convicted of a repeat offense.
In Nebraska, senators have introduced a bill to end prison gerrymandering and a constitutional amendment to abolish disenfranchisement.
In New York, the Brooklyn Eagle offers a comprehensive look at 15 major bills that lawmakers may tackle in 2020. The list features proposals to restrict solitary confinement, expand parole for people over the age of 55, abolish disenfranchisement, and better investigate the police.
In at least Oklahoma, Virginia and Wyoming, advocates are pushing to abolish the death penalty. Abolition came close in Wyoming in 2019.
Also, California‘s governor released a budget with a number of reform proposals. Illinois‘s wants to tackle ending cash bail. Virginia‘s released a slate of proposals including increased funding for public defenders, and eligibility for parole for people above age 50 and 55 who have served lengthy sentences. And Wisconsin‘s has said a 2020 priority will be limiting solitary confinement.
State legislatures this year abolished the death penalty, legalized or decriminalized pot, expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions, restricted solitary confinement, and made it harder to prosecute minors as adults, among other initiatives.
Read the Political Report’s retrospective of the year that was—by theme and with seven maps. And yes, each state shows up.
New York: Child welfare systems
In late December, Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed two bills that aimed to reform the child welfare system. The first would have required more evidence for the state to list parents on a state abuse or neglect registry; the second would have enabled judges to order an open adoption in cases of adoption after foster care. Commentary on both bills appeared in The Appeal in November.
Sexual offense registries
Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have repealed the ban on people convicted of a sexual offense living within 1,500 feet of schools or parks. Such residency restrictions create major issues for people with criminal records, fueling homelessness and cutting them off from families and employment opportunities.
While rolling back such restrictions is perceived to be politically difficult, this bill had passed the GOP-run legislature unanimously; it even had support from state DAs. Dan Feyen, a GOP senator who sponsored the bill, told me via an email from a spokesperson that he was “frustrated and incredibly disappointed,” and that residency limits push people on supervised release leave people “to be more isolated.” The legislature could seek to override Evers’s veto in 2020. Feyen said he is “optimistic that [the bill] would maintain support.”
Kentucky and New Jersey
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a bill to enable any adult citizen who is not incarcerated to vote. People on parole and probation were disenfranchised until now. The law will restore the rights of about 80,000 people.
Just a week before, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued an executive order to restore the right to vote of people with nonviolent felonies once they complete their sentence. Beshear, whose order still leaves many Kentuckians disenfranchised, also called on the legislature to adopt a constitutional amendment codifying it into law.
Expungement, food assistance
The legislative session has long ended, but the Political Report overlooked a few major reforms that West Virginia adopted earlier this year. First, Senate Bill 152 expanded the range of offenses people can clear from their records. Rather than limit eligibility to misdemeanors, West Virginia now also enables people convicted of nonviolent felonies to seek expungements three years after completing their sentences. As in most states, though, expungement will not be automatic.
In addition, House Bill 2459 has ended the lifetime ban on food assistance benefits (SNAP) for people with drug-related felony convictions.
“We should be anxious to see these people get back on their feet,” John Scott, a GOP Representative who sponsored the bill, said during legislative debates. The law’s final version contains some carve-outs, though. The ban stems from a 1996 federal statute and it has blocked many low-income West Virginians from vital resources, NPR reported last year. But states can opt out of that statute, and by now most have, at least in part. (The most recent besides West Virginia was Indiana in 2018.)
Mississippi and South Carolina are the only two states left that will have a lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for anyone with a felony drug conviction. (Other states have kept partial prohibitions; Michigan has a lifetime ban for anyone with multiple drug convictions, for instance.)
Michigan: Youth justice
Michigan automatically treats all 17-year olds as adults, which throws thousands of minors into adult court. But that will soon change: A new set of laws will raise the age until which teenagers can be in the youth system by one year, to 18. Read more in the Political Report.
Only three states have now passed no law raising the age to 18: Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Still, prosecutors will retain broad discretion to charge minors much younger than 17 as adults with little oversight, and state and national advocates vow to press ahead with further demands to further restrict the prosecution of youth as adults, and more.
New York: Voting rights
A New York bill introduced by Democratic state Senator Kevin Parker in October would guarantee the right to vote of all voting-age citizens, including if they are in prison. “All New Yorkers should be able to exercise their foundational American right of voting,” it states.
Read the Political Report’s article on this legislation: Ending felony disenfranchisement would also mean that law enforcement professionals are no longer the arbiters of who gets to exercise democratic rights.
This bill adds to the nationwide landscape of legislation that would stop stripping people of their voting rights over a criminal conviction.
Democrats gained control of the Virginia government for the first time since 1993. This coincided with a wave of wins for decarceral prosecutors.
What is next? The legislature may tackle marijuana laws, lessen sentencing guidelines, and raise felony thresholds. It may also expand voting rights.
Democratic lawmakers began filing bills for the 2020 session in mid-November. Of interest: Senate Bill 1 would stop the suspension of driver’s license over nonpayment of court debt;SB 2 would decriminalize marijuana; SB 72 would create a public defender’s office in Prince William County; House Bill 35 would make anyone sentenced while a minor eligible for parole after 25 years; HB 319 would end prison gerrymandering.
Justice Forward Virginia, a nonpartisan organization, released a Virginia-specific list of legislative priorities on criminal legal reform. It includes restoring a parole system, requiring prosecutors to adopt open-file discovery, eliminating mandatory minimum statutes, and more.
To head the committee in charge of such bills, Democratic leaders appointed Delegate Charniele Herring. This came after a public outcry by groups like the NAACP over the rumored appointment of a lawmaker with a record hostile to reform.
See also: Vaidya Gullapalli warns in the Daily Appeal that gun control bills Democrats may consider “rely on further criminalization of gun possession.”
Massachusetts: Drug policy
People who relapse while on probation are frequently incarcerated, despite the medical understanding of relapse as a symptom of substance use. A Massachusetts bill would try to change that: It would “prevent judges from throwing people in jail who are in treatment and fail a mandatory drug test while on probation,” Sarah Lustbader writes in the Daily Appeal. The legislation would also limit the number of random drug screenings to four a month.
Illinois: Licence suspensions
The Illinois legislature adopted Senate Bill 1786, which would counter the practice of suspending driver’s licenses. It would bar such suspensions over many non-driving violations, such as not paying traffic tickets or theft of motor fuel. Losing one’s license can trigger further economic hardships and mounting legal if not carceral problems. SB 1786 was sponsored by Democrats Carol Ammons and Omar Aquino. It is now on the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers are considering two bills to modify Ohio’s punitive approach to drug policy. They would reduce the reliance on incarceration, and lessen the severity of some charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. Ben Stein, an advocate with Policy Matters Ohio, makes the case for these reforms in Cleveland.com. “By passing both [bills], we can stop pretending addiction is just a bad decision that should be punished,” he writes.
Prison gerrymandering, immigration, private prisons
Advocates prepare their next legislative efforts in Colorado: to abolish the death penalty, to ban 287(g) program, and to end prison gerrymandering.
And the Denver Post reports that some lawmakers are looking to end private prisons.
Lawmakers passed a flurry of reforms in the final days of the legislative session, in mid-September. We wrote then on eight major bills.
Governor Gavin Newsom signed seven of them into law in October. These new laws:
1. allow most people with felony convictions to serve on juries after completing their sentence (Senate Bill 310);
2. ban facial recognition in body cameras for three years (Assembly Bill 1215);
3. eliminate the requirement that individuals convicted of some drug offenses receive at least a 180-day jail stay (AB 484);
4. voids deals in which defendants agree to forfeit hypothetical future rights (AB 1618). San Diego DA Summer Stephan was asking for such deals.
5. ban private prisons and immigration facilities (AB 32), with some caveats, including the provision that currently existing contracts are not terminated.
6. repeal the one year-additions to a person’s sentence for each prior felony conviction punished with prison or jail (SB 136);
7. automate part of the expungement process (AB 1076). California is the third state to adopt a “Clean Slate” law. Its version will apply to all misdemeanors and some felonies, with a big caveat: It will only apply to offenses committed after 2021.
Newsom vetoed AB 927, however. It would have required that judges determine a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing fines and fees.
He also angered some marijuana advocates by vetoing a bill “that would have allowed dying patients to use smokeless forms of medical marijuana in hospitals, skilled-nursing facilities and hospices,” Patrick McGreevy reports in the Los Angeles Times. He signed bills that ban the use of marijuana in tour buses and limousines, and increase penalties for illicit marijuana sellers.
Life sentences and parole
State Senator Sharif Street is reintroducing legislation to make anyone who is serving a life sentence eligible for parole after 25 to 35 years. This would make Pennsylvania the first state to bar life without the possibility of parole and its functional equivalents. The state is a worldwide leader in death by incarceration, as documented in a 2018 report by the Abolitionist Law Center. Thousands of individuals (16 percent of the state’s prison population) are serving a life sentence or a sentence of 50 or more years. Similar bills have been filed elsewhere in the country, amid growing recognition that slashing incarceration requires changing the prevailing approaches to violent offenses.
Pennsylvania is also the only state in the Northeast where capital punishment is in the books, though Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015. And some lawmakers are planning a legislative push to abolish it.
The D.C. Council is considering a reform that would enable judges to reduce the sentence of anyone convicted for a crime they committed before the age of 25, once they have spent 15 years in prison. This bill would advance the nationwide efforts against virtual life sentences, and also build on efforts to expand youth justice beyond its usual cutoff of 18. Writing in the Washington Post, James Forman Jr., a professor of law at Yale, supports the proposed reform and rebukes the U.S. attorney’s office for opposing it. “I teach in prison, and my students are living proof that people can change,” he writes. “Despite their histories, many of my students have found ways to resurrect their lives while incarcerated.”
In August, the state repealed an 1872 law (the California Posse Comitatus Act) that made it a misdemeanor to refuse to help law enforcement. The posse comitatus doctrine has a long and dark history that illuminates the way local law enforcement has functioned, Sarah Lustbader writes in The Appeal.
New York: Youth justice
A new law will ease implementation of the state’s Raise the Age law, which increased the jurisdiction of the youth justice system. As Lauren Gill reports in The Appeal, the law eliminates a burdensome requirement that 16- and 17-year-olds show up in adult criminal court for their case to be moved to family court.
Illinois: ICE Cooperation
Governor J.B. Pritzker has signed two laws relevant to immigration. One bans private immigration detention centers in Illinois. The other bans county governments in Illinois from contracting into ICE’s 287(g) program. California adopted a ban against these contracts in 2017, soon after President Trump’s election. But the reform has not taken off since elsewhere, at least not until this Illinois law.
Oregon: Death penalty
Oregon became the latest state to act against it last week when Governor Kate Brown signed SB 1013, which considerably narrows the range of capital offenses. The bill is not retroactive, but the governor has the authority to commute existing death sentences.
After the law’s adoption, DAs kept up their complaints that it affects pending or non-finalized cases, and prominent Democrats like Senator Floyd Prozanski agreed to narrow the law; Governor Kate Brown even signaled she would call a special legislative session to do so. But the session did not happen, likely because enough House Democrats stood firm against it.
New Jersey: Qualified immunity
While calls to improve police accountability have intensified nationwide, New Jersey is heading in the opposite direction. The Appeal reported this month on a bill that would expand qualified immunity, the doctrine that largely protects law enforcement officers from legal accountability, to police officers at private colleges and universities. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Assemblymember Roy Freiman, passed the Assembly but has yet to be considered in the Senate. “They’re trying to protect themselves from the fallout of police violence rather than trying to make sure police violence never happens in the first place,” Micah Herskind, an activist who opposes the bill, told The Appeal.
Oregon: Nonunanimous juries
Since Louisiana’s 2018 referendum, Oregon is the only state where people can be found guilty by a nonunanimous jury. And the state took no action this year to end this anomaly. Reform looked to be on the way when even the Oregon District Attorneys Association endorsed changing the state Constitution, and when the House passed a bill to put the matter on the 2020 ballot. But the Senate adjourned without adopting it. The Associated Press reports the issue is sure to return next year. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to consider a case involving a nonunanimous conviction, and some advocates say they will press the issue in the legislature once more.
Prosecutorial decisions typically function as a black box, which makes it difficult to assess fundamental matters like the extent of racial disparities in a given office. Connecticut is set to change this. Last week, Governor Ned Lamont signed legislation that WNPR says is the “first in the nation to mandate the collection of prosecutorial data statewide.” Prosecutors will now need to collect demographic data pertaining to charging and sentencing decisions, the use of diversion, and their plea offers.
Rhode Island: Civil death
Samantha Michaels reports in Mother Jones that in Rhode Island, anyone who is serving a life sentence is considered to be “civilly dead,” and therefore deprived of all civil rights. This includes the right to complain in state court about mistreatment. Rhode Island is the only state where the status of “civil death” is applied so literally, but legislation to end it has failed every year since 2014. Will 2020 change this? Another bill that failed this year would have abolished life without parole for people under 18.
Oregon: Youth justice
Oregon overhauled its youth justice system, advancing in one swoop goals that reformers have had for decades. SB 1008 abolishes life without parole for minors, expands opportunities for early release, and restricts the prosecution of children as adults.
Advocates emphasized that plenty of work remains, especially insofar as SB 1008 is not retroactive. But they also said this as a major paradigm shift in the state.
California: Felony murder
The battle continues over Senate Bill 437, the 2018 law that reduced the conditions under which someone can be convicted of murder for an act they did not commit. Nearly all DAs like San Diego’s Summer Stephan have since fought the law, denying potential relief for thousands convicted under the felony murder doctrine. But Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, just sided with the legislature last week: His office filed a legal brief defending the reform’s constitutionality.
Hawaii: Asset forfeiture, medical release
Hawaii Governor David Ige vetoed a series of reforms. He killed a measure to restrict civil asset forfeiture and another for terminally ill incarcerated people to be eligible for medical release. “There’s longstanding deference to police and law enforcement in our state,” said Mandy Fernandes, policy director of the ACLU of Hawaii. Ige allowed a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana to become law without his signature. The bill falls short of reforms other states have recently implemented.
Alaska continues to roll back the decarcerative reforms it adopted in 2016, Zachary Siegel reports in The Appeal. The latest law was championed by Mike Dunleavy, a Republican who was elected governor in 2018 on a platform to “Make America Safe Again.” Siegel reports that it “makes simple drug possession an arrestable offense and adds years of sentencing on to various crimes that reforms had previously reduced.” These changes may lead the state to reopen Palmer prison, which was closed in 2016. Alaska had already reversed some decarcerative reforms in 2017.
Oregon allowed the use of attack dogs in cell extractions, which led to the mauling of a man in 2017. A bill to ban this practice was adopted by the legislature in the spring and signed into law by Governor Kat Brown in June. A Human Rights Watch report already examined the use of attack dogs against incarcerated people in 2006. “Some prisoners will wrap blankets, towels, and even toilet paper around their limbs to try to protect themselves from dog bites,” the report documented.
The death penalty will remain abolished. Ever since the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2016, there have been legislative rumblings to reinstate it. Democrats govern the state, but enough support such a measure to make it at least viable. The House actually adopted such a bill in 2017; and two of the four initial sponsors of a 2019 version were Democrats (William Carson and Bruce Ennis). Governor John Carney has said he may sign a reinstatement bill. But the legislature adjourned for the year without taking any action on this.
New Jersey: Solitary confinement
New Jersey has restricted solitary confinement, a practice by which state prisons torture people for months or years on end. A new law, signed by Governor Phil Murphy last week, creates a limit of 20 consecutive days and 30 days over a 60 day-period. New Jersey is the first state to adopt such a time limit through law; Colorado has implemented a 15 day-limit administratively. Vox calls it “the most progressive legislative reform to the practice of solitary confinement in the U.S.” New Jersey’s reform was championed by activists organized around the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ CAIC). Advocates pushed for a time limit in New Mexico and New York this year, but those proposals failed.
A new law will enable the state attorney general, John Shapiro, to prosecute firearm violations in Philadelphia. The move, which dilutes DA Larry Krasner’s authority, applies only to Philadelphia and expires in two years, right when Krasner’s current term ends. The bill’s Republican sponsor implied to The Intercept that he was motivated by his view that Krasner, who has used probationary programs, was not “enforcing the law.” Democratic Governor Tom Wolf signed the bill.
New Mexico and New York
Efforts to legalize marijuana collapsed in the final day of the legislative session. But the state adopted a backup bill to decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana (as opposed to one ounce previously) and the act of smoking marijuana in public. It reduces these acts, now misdemeanors, to a violation subject to a ticket and fine. In addition, the bill provides for automatic expungement of existing records: The state will vacate past convictions over offenses no longer deemed criminal.
New Mexico went through a similar sequence of events this year. While initial reform efforts focused on legalization, the state eventually decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, reducing penalties for first-time offenses.
Nevada, Washington, and beyond
Nevada and Washington adopted laws ending prison gerrymandering, a practice that dilutes the power of urban areas and of communities of color. Their laws requires the state to count incarcerated people at their last known address for purposes of redistricting, as opposed to where their prison is located.
But the clock is ticking for other states to take such action, as the next round of redistricting is around the corner.
Jail conditions and sheriffs
Alabama sheriffs can no longer personally pocket the funds meant to provide food to people in jail. A new law, sponsored by Republican Senator Arthur Orr and signed by Governor Kay Ivey, ends a rule that incentivized sheriffs to provide subpar meals and then keep leftover money.
This longstanding practice drew renewed outrage in 2018, when an AL.com investigation by Conor Sheets revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin had pocketed $750,000 of jail food funds and bought a $740,000 beach house.
Update: Local referendums held in March 2020 means two sheriffs have regained the power to divert jail food funds.
The GOP-run House passed a bill in April to decriminalize some the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But it was then ignored in the Senate, and is now dead since the legislature has adjourned. Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate agenda, staunchly opposed the bill. Texas did expand medical marijuana, significantly lengthening the list of qualifying medical conditions.
Texas also legalized hemp, distinguishing it from marijuana based on THC concentration. But an unintended consequence is that marijuana cases now require knowing a product’s THC level. Many DAs say they lack the resources and capacity to make this determination; the state’s GOP leaders contest this.
Connecticut could have been the first state to make phone calls from prison free. But the legislature adjourned without adopting this bill, despite organizing by the group Worth Rises and a shout-out from Senator Elizabeth Warren. Making a 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, an expense that piles up and compounds the isolation of incarcerated people. Rachel Cohen reported in The Intercept that the bill was held up by the stonewalling of Governor Ned Lamont and the lobbying of Securus Technologies, a prison telecommunications company. Cohen later reported that the proposal failed for reasons unrelated to its content and may return next year.
Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that shrinks DAs’ power to jail victims of sexual offenses or domestic violence to compel them to testify. The law prohibits such “material witness warrants” in misdemeanor cases; for felony cases, it imposes a list of conditions before someone can be detained.
The law was narrowed from its original version, which banned detention altogether, in part because of the opposition of the head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.
Cooperation with ICE
A bill to curtail the agency’s reach was weakened after Democratic Governor Jared Polis objected to restrictions it imposed on local cooperation with federal immigration authorities. His office warned in April that he would veto the bill unless it was stripped of some of its most important provisions, including a ban on counties joining ICE’s prized 287(g) program. Polis signed the narrowed version in May. But immigrants’ rights advocates argue that ICE contracts were already illegal under state law. Read more in the Political Report.
In December, the Sixth Amendment Center released a report funded by the legislature documenting that Oregon’s public defense system violates the U.S. Constitution. How is the legislature responding? By creating a task force to study the issue. Lawmakers gutted a bill that would have expanded the state’s defense system and limited public defenders’ caseload, replacing those provisions with a task force that would last through the end of 2020; advocates warn this could derail any other reform push for years.
Gravity knives, sentencing reform
New York’s ban on gravity knives is no more: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill sponsored by Assemblymember Dan Quart that decriminalized their possession. The ban “has swept up tens of thousands of New York City residents, overwhelmingly people of color, for owning what critics argue are common work tools,” The Appeal reported in March.
Also, in New York, passage of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act will allow sentencing judges to consider whether a crime was connected to abuse that a defendant suffered. Read more in The Daily Appeal.
The legislature adjourned in May without adopting reform legislation. A proposal to stop suspending driver’s licenses over an inability to pay court fines and fees did not make it past either chamber (despite bipartisan success elsewhere), nor did a proposal to consider indigency before imposing fines and fees.
Other bills that drew attention but passed neither chamber included a five-year cap on probation terms and a proposal to enable people on parole to vote, as is the law in 18 other states. Earlier this year, the GOP-run Senate also killed a bill to legalize marijuana.
Illinois is set to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana. The legislation sets up it sets up a streamlined pardon process to expunge existing convictions, which will relieve thousands from the lifelong implications of past prosecutions. It also contains other provisions meant to repair the harm caused by prohibition.
Colorado is lowering drug possession to the misdemeanor level. This new law, effective in 2020, reclassifies possession of nearly all Schedule I and Schedule II substances, including heroin and fentanyl. This significantly reduces penalties associated with possessing these drugs. It shortens sentences and shifts people from prison to county jails.
New Hampshire has abolished the death penalty.
The Senate voted one week after the House to override Governor Chris Sununu’s veto. The law passed the Senate with no vote to spare, but that was enough to make New Hampshire into the 21st state to have gotten rid of capital punishment.
In 2016, Oklahomans approved State Question 780, which reduced drug possession and some theft offenses to the misdemeanor level. But SQ 780 gave no relief to people with past convictions. But in May, the state adopted a new law that makes SQ 780 retroactive. Hundreds of people could be quickly released, and tens of thousands will be eligible for an expungement. Oklahoma is just the second state to retroactively reduce drug possession to a misdemeanor (after California).
See also: In August, KWTV reported that the state has begun the process of commuting the sentences of about 1,400 people who are currently incarcerated on drug possession charges.
Colorado and Nevada
Colorado and Nevada adopted new laws that will restore people’s voting rights as soon as they are released from incarceration, as opposed to doing so at later stages of the legal system (if ever). These reforms deal a double blow to a system that excludes and marginalizes millions of U.S. citizens nationwide.
The two whitest states (Maine and Vermont) are currently the only jurisdictions with no felony disenfranchisement, a practice with racist roots. That could change if D.C. abolishes disenfranchisement. Kira Lerner reports on a new bill that would enable people to vote from prison. Every member of the City Council signed on as a co-sponsor. D.C. already authorizes people to vote while on probation and on parole.
Youth detention & sentencing
Washington adopted two new laws relevant to detention and sentencing over the past month. One restricts the state’s aggressive habit of detention of minors for noncriminal acts but it makes exceptions when such behavior violates a valid court order. The other amended the state’s three-strikes statutes by removing second-degree robbery from the list of offenses that can trigger a life without parole sentence. Both bills were narrowed during the legislative negotiations. Read more in the Political Report.
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.
North Dakota reduced penalties for marijuana possession last month. In a step toward decriminalization, the new law eliminates the threat of jail for first-time offenders who possess under half an ounce. It reduces possession of a greater quantity from a felony to a misdemeanor. North Dakotans rejected a referendum to legalize marijuana last year.
A Texas bill to criminalize voting has likely died; Kira Lerner reported in The Appeal last month that this bill would have increased criminal penalties for ineligible individuals who cast a ballot, and made it easier for DAs to prosecute voting as a felony.
Detention conditions & bail
Local jails will now need to provide free menstrual hygiene products to people in custody. A new law, sponsored by lawmakers Leslie Herod and Faith Winter, extends a mandate that already existed in state prisons. According to 9News, the catalyst for this reform was Elisabeth Epps, an activist with the Denver Justice Project, who has talked about the difficulties she had experienced getting such products while she was detained in jail for interfering with police.
Epps also plays a central role in state organizing against cash bail—and the state just moved on this issue too: A new law will prohibit the use of money bail in petty offense cases and most traffic offense cases. That is a modest reform compared to changes adopted elsewhere. The state also adopted a separate bill that requires bond hearings within 48 hours of arrest.
Drug-induced murder charges
Throughout the country, DAs are increasingly treating overdoses as homicides, a surge fueled in some states by statutory changes that make murder charges easier to file. Virginia came close to such a change this year. The legislature passed a bill that would have expanded the scope of felony murder charges against people who sell or provide an illicit substance that results in an overdose. But Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, vetoed the bill in May. It “goes beyond drug dealers and would punish individuals who are themselves struggling with addiction,” he said, a point made by critics of these charges.
Innocence and exoneration
A new law will expand reentry services available to people who are exonerated. It also provides exonerated individuals $50,000 of restitution for each year they were incarcerated. However, exonerated people will only qualify if they forego all litigation against the state. Kristine Bunch, who was exonerated in 2012 after being incarcerated for 17 years and who has founded the nonprofit Justis 4 Justus to assist exonerated people, criticized the reform for asking people to make this choice. “Saying you can’t have a civil suit in addition to receiving help … it’s like they’ve gotten away with it,” she told the Hendricks County Flyer. The bill was sponsored by Republican Representative Greg Steuerwald.
A new law will require prisons and jails to provide menstrual hygiene products at the state or the county’s expense. The U.S. Department of Justice found in a 2014 report about an Alabama women’s prison that prisoners were “compelled to submit to unlawful sexual advances” to “obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products.” The state Department of Corrections now insists that it is providing such products, but the bill’s sponsor, Representative Rolanda Hollis, said she has heard otherwise.
Montana, Tennessee, and Virginia
Fines and fees
Three states addressed the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over a failure to pay fines and fees, a practice that can trigger mounting legal and economic hardships.
In Montana, House Bill 217 will halt the suspension of driver’s licenses over a failure to pay fines and fees, a practice that can trigger mounting legal and economic hardships. This bill was left for dead in early April when a Senate committee voted to table the legislation, but there was enough support for the full chamber to blast HB 217 out of committee and adopt it, a month after the bill passed the House.
The reform was championed jointly by the ACLU of Montana and Americans for Prosperity.
Tennessee also adopted a law to restrict license suspensions. Unlike Montana’s reform, Tennessee’s would apply only when a court determines that a person is too poor to pay or is making “reasonable” efforts to do so.
Finally, hundreds of thousands of Virginians can regain their driver’s licenses in July. The state has ended their automatic suspension over unpaid fines and fees. But the Associated Press reports that Virginia’s reform expires next year unless it is renewed because it was adopted as a budget amendment.
Missouri: Death penalty
Missouri will remain one of only three states that allows someone to be sentenced to death even if a jury does not reach unanimity on sentencing. If the jury deadlocks, state law allows judges to impose the death penalty no matter the majority position. Republican lawmakers Shamed Dogan and Paul Wieland had filed legislation (HB 811 and SB 288) to require a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty. The idea made it out of committee, but it did not move further by the end of the legislative session.
Colorado, New York, Utah: Immigration
Utah adopted a new law that cuts the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor by one day (from 365 to 364). This small change has big implications. Under federal law, noncitizens sentenced to at least one year of detention face deportation, so Utah’s change effectively shields noncitizens from facing such dire consequences based on a misdemeanor conviction. The bill was championed by the Refugee Justice League and by GOP Representative Eric Hutchings.
New York also adopted such law in 2019. Colorado did too, but not for the highest class of misdemeanors.
Iowa will take no action on expanding voting rights this year. It is one of just three states with laws that permanently disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony. In March, the House overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of people who complete a felony conviction. But Republican Senator Brad Zaun, chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, decided to sideline the bill; Kira Lerner earlier reported in The Appeal on Zaun’s efforts to dilute the reform. Although Governor Kim Reynolds backed this change, she also said she would not use her executive authority to enfranchise people with completed sentences. As a result, people will still need to file individual pleas for clemency—and Reynolds has only restored the rights of 88 people in this way during her first two years in office—though she eased the application process this year.
Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg mounted a strong but ultimately failed push this year to reverse the 2013 reform with which South Dakota created a presumption of probation for offenses in the two lowest felony classes. People can now only be sentenced to prison if a court identifies circumstances that it says make them a threat. The Urban Institute found two years later that this was helping decrease prison admissions and it proposed further reforms, such as expanding presumptive probation to more offenses. But this year Ravnsborg faulted presumptive probation as too lenient and harmful to deterrence. He championed legislation to repeal it and to expand judges’ ability to send people to prison. The state’s prosecutors and sheriffs associations each endorsed the bill, but the Department of Corrections argued that incarcerating more people was unviable and too expensive. The bill died in February when the Senate voted against it.
New Mexico adopted a new law to restrict solitary confinement. The state has one of the country’s highest rates of solitary confinement, a practice that is tied to widespread deaths in the state’s carceral system, as Kira Lerner reported in The Appeal. The law bans putting pregnant women and minors in solitary confinement. It also restricts its use to 48 hours for people with “serious” mental disabilities.
However, the original bill introduced in January went further: It restricted putting anyone in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. This would respect the United Nations’ “Nelson Mandela Rules,” which prohibit its use for longer than that. (Colorado’s Department of Corrections announced it would follow those rules in 2017.) Legislative leaders removed this language on the House floor.
Youth justice and parole
A new Illinois law defies the usual pattern that in the United States even bold youth justice reforms stop at the age of majority, if not earlier. It creates a parole process for most people who will be convicted of offenses they committed before the age of 21, providing them review after either 10 years or 20 years depending on the offense category.
Read the Political Report on how this law, while restricted, opens doors to think differently about what criminal justice reform can look like.
Illinois is also consideration legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 21.
Arizona, New Mexico
“Ban the box”
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed into law a “Ban the Box” bill that bars private employers from asking job applicants about prior arrests or convictions on an initial application. However, employers can inquire into this past and take it into account at later stages.
A similar bill has died in Arizona. The Senate passed it in March, but Republican Representative John Allen refused to take it up in the committee he leads. “I don’t know if we have the legal ability to go into a private company and tell them what they can’t look at,” he said.
Response to opioids
Pastors from the North Carolina Council of Churches and other advocates rallied in Raleigh to demand that the state expand Medicaid. They framed this reform as crucial to fighting the opioid crisis by enabling people with substance use disorder to receive treatment and to shift away from a carceral and law enforcement response to addiction. The GOP-run legislature has opposed Medicaid expansion. It is now mulling a more punitive response to opioids via HB 212, which would increase the length of incarceration for people who break into a pharmacy.
New York adopted a major package of pretrial reforms that state organizers have long worked toward. These measures considerably strengthen the state’s discovery rules. They also end the use of cash bail for misdemeanors and some felonies.
See also: As the pretrial reforms near their implementation date, advocates worry about how prosecutors will act.
California, Colorado and Nebraska
Bills to abolish the death penalty failed in Colorado and Nebraska. In Colorado, the legislation lacked sufficient support in the Senate. And Nebraska lawmakers rejected rejected legislation on a vote of 25 to 17; the bill had advanced past the committee stage. The Nebraska legislature abolished the death penalty in 2015, but voters then reinstated it in a 2016 referendum. Senator Ernie Chambers has been the primary sponsor of these repeated efforts.
In California, meanwhile, Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions last month.
Louisiana also saw action on abolition in April. The Senate also rejected a bill, while the House committee advanced separate legislation that then stalled.
Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, Washington
Various efforts to expand voting rights for people with felony convictions faltered around the country in March and April.
Mississippi: The last rights restoration bills that was still standing in Mississippi’s legislative session died in March. With the legislative path sidelined once more, what are the prospects and obstacles for the state to emulate Florida in pursuing a popular initiative? The Political Report explores.
New Mexico: Legislation to enfranchise people on parole and probation died when Democratic leaders did not bring the bill to a vote by the session’s deadline.
Washington: Similar legislation also died in Washington, where the Senate Rules Committee did not advance it.
Massachusetts: The state was considering a bill to abolish disenfranchisement, but the proposal derailed in April when the Joint Committee on Election Laws effectively voted to table it. The committee vote was not public. Only four of its 17 members answered the Political Report’s multiple requests for comment about how they voted. All those who replied said that they voted to advance the reform.
Criminal convictions have ramifications far beyond the explicit sentences imposed on individuals. Reformers are pushing this year to expand and/or automate expungement processes in a number of states. In Delaware, new legislation would considerably increase eligibility for expungement; state law currently provides adults no opportunity short of a pardon to have past convictions expunged.
And Utah adopted a “Clean Slate” bill to automate some of its expungement process. 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 expungement reform, in the Political Report.
Major bills to overhaul Arizona’s criminal legal system fell by the wayside. One proposal that advocates had rallied around was HB 2270, which aimed to lower the requirement that people serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release; another 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 Representative John Allen, the GOP chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee. The Mirror also discusses the opposition of Senator Eddie Farnsworth, the GOP chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
See also: In June, GOP Governor Doug Ducey vetoed a rare bill that passed the legislature. It would have narrowed the circumstances in which prosecutors can treat defendants as repeat offenders. That status triggers stacked charges and harsh sentences. Prosecutors lobbied against the legislation.
Florida has repealed its ban on medical marijuana taking a smokable form. The state had adopted this ban after a 2016 referendum legalized medical marijuana; Governor Rick Scott then defended the ban in court. But Florida’s new Governor Rick DeSantis staked a different position in January. “Whether they have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that?” he said. The legislature then adopted SB 182 this month.
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. The Governor Kim Reynolds had made it one of her goals for the year.
Youth justice & sentencing reform
North Dakota adopted two bills in late February. First, House Bill 1183 ends mandatory minimum requirements for some offenses involving drug manufacturing and dealing.
Second, House Bill 1039 raises to 10 from 7 the age at which children can be referred to the juvenile justice system. The Senate adopted the bill unanimously last week, a month after the House did so by an overwhelming majority. “To me, it still seems like 10 is quite young,” one lawmaker said during the House debates.
A legislative committee voted to advance a bill that would grant voting rights to people in prison, a major win in itself for the nationwide movement to abolish felony disenfranchisement. But the bill then stalled. The Political Report writes that advocates vowed to press ahead. “People don’t lose their citizenship just because they’re sentenced to prison,” said one state organizer.
Sex work decriminalization
Decrim NY, a coalition of state organizations, launched a campaign to decriminalize sex work in February, The Appeal reports. The 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,” Melissa Gira Grant writes. 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
Reformers in Massachusetts and Vermont are hoping to build on recent successes of those who have chipped away at sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors by pushing proposals to entirely abolish life without parole. Their proposals would also ensure 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.
Wyoming came within a few votes this month of abolishing the death penalty. The GOP-run House adopted an abolition bill, but the Senate narrowly rejected the proposal.
Death penalty repeal also fell short in committee in the Kansas and Montana Houses.
Arkansas adopted a new law that will 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. Sarah Lustbader writes 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.”
Kentucky’s harsh disenfranchisement statutes deprive more than one in four Black Kentuckians of the right to vote. We explored efforts to expand voting rights in December. Now, a new push got off the ground: Senate Bill 238, filed by Senator Morgan McGarvey, would restore voting rights once they complete their sentences for most felony convictions. It includes exceptions for certain crimes. It is backed, among other groups, by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that may have sway on Republicans who govern the state.
Lawmakers have also filed 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, which HB 155 and SB 215 would reduce.
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. “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 a hearing.
A new law 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. “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 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.
In Tennessee, meanwhile, Nashville voters approved the creation of an independent police oversight board in November, but GOP lawmakers introduced a bill that would block aspects of Nashville’s initiative.
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 disenfranchisement and enable people who are in prison, 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.
See also: The legislation passed its first hurdle in the state House in late January.