South Carolina mulls sentencing reforms, New Jersey adopts police accountability bill, death penalty repeal moves forward in Wyoming, and more

Many of the laws that govern the American criminal justice system are set at the state level. Explore the latest developments on criminal justice reform in state legislatures around the country with the Political Report’s interactive tool. Updates drawn from the Political Report newsletter, written by Daniel Nichanian.

New Jersey

On Jan. 30, Governor Phil Murphy signed Senate Bill 1036 into law. SB 1036 requires that all cases of people who are killed by police officers or who die while in custody be investigated by the office of the state attorney general rather than county prosecutors. The bill passed the legislature in December. The first death that will be investigated under this law is that of a man shot in Passaic on Jan. 31.

New York

New York politicians face calls to address criminal justice issues. The#Freenewyork coalition wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo asking him to strengthen his existing proposals to curb pretrial detentions. In addition, Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York City Council, and Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News on the court fees that people are required to pay upon any conviction: They ask the legislature to abolish these fees or else to tailor to a person’s financial circumstances.

South Carolina

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. Of the bill’s 16 sponsors as of Feb. 4, nine are Democrats and seven are Republican. One of them is Peter McCoy, the House Judiciary Committee chairman. The committee held a hearing on the legislation in late January. “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 the hearing.


Nashville voters approved the creation of an independent police oversight board in November. On Feb. 4, GOP lawmakers introduced a bill (House Bill 658) to limit the powers of oversight boards; it would block aspects of Nashville’s initiative. As described by the Times Free Press, the legislation would strip such oversight boards of subpoena power and prevent the requirement that a certain share of members belong to specific demographic groups. “We as Republican leaders want the state and our communities to know that we support the men and women in blue on the front lines fighting crime and protecting us as we sleep safe at night,” said House Speaker Glen Casada, who is co-sponsoring the legislation.

Theeda Murphy, an organizer with Community Oversight Nashville, told me in October that subpoena power was essential to ensuring a “full and complete and independent investigation.” She also explained the requirement that four board members come from “economically distressed neighborhoods” as a way to achieve “significant representation from people who are left out.”

On Feb. 1, the Wyoming state House approved legislation to abolish the death penalty (House Bill 145) on a vote of 36 to 21. The chamber had rejected similar bills in each of the past five years. I wrote last week that this year’s effort had more co-sponsors than in the past, including that of Speaker Steve Harshman, a Republican. The bill now moves to the state Senate.