Surveying reform prospects in Arizona, California, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, and Oregon

Updates drawn from the Daily Appeal and Political Report newsletters. Find more on our legislative roundup page.

Efforts to reform Arizona’s criminal justice system through the legislature hinge in part on what Republican Governor Doug Ducey would sign. Ducey implied in an interview with the Arizona Mirror that he does not support legislation to scale back sentencing laws or reduce the severity of some charges. However, he said he would back bills that support the reinsertion of people into society once they complete a felony sentence. “I look at one side of the equation is these are people that are getting out of prison,” he said. “There are people that will fulfill their debt to society this year, and those are the people that we can deal with right now.”
The landmark law that overhauled California’s money bail system and provoked ire on the left and the right has been put on hold until voters decide its fate in November 2020. Bail industry associations, fighting to remain relevant, prevailed in their effort to delay implementation, but criminal justice advocates are not fighting to save the law in its current form because of concerns that without sufficient checks, Hit could result in more people incarcerated pretrial, not fewer. Senate Bill 10 relies heavily on risk assessment tools that have not yet been developed, and it gives judges tremendous discretion to decide who stays in jail pending trial. Reform groups opposed to SB 10 have distanced themselves from the bail industry’s referendum efforts, and are instead pushing for new court rules from the Judicial Council to prevent racial bias in the use of risk assessment tools.
GOP Governor Kim Reynolds endorsed two constitutional amendments in her Condition of the State address on Tuesday. The first is Marsy’s Law, which would enshrine a set of rights for victims in state constitutions. (See also: The Appeal’s coverage of Marsy’s Law in other states.) The second is similar to Amendment 4, the initiative that Floridians approved in 2018: It would restore the voting rights of Iowans once they complete their felony sentences. Iowa is one of three states (alongside Kentucky and Virginia) where state law provides for a lifetime voting ban on anyone convicted of a felony. Because of the requirements of passing a constitutional amendment in Iowa, the earliest Reynolds’s proposal could come into effect is 2023. Writing on the blog Bleeding Heartland, Laura Belin reviews speedier executive and legislative paths with which Iowa could enfranchise its residents.
New House Speaker Elijah Haahr, a Republican, has thrown his support behind legislation (House Bill 113) that would curb the state’s mandatory minimum requirements and allow some individuals to be released after serving a shorter period of their sentence than currently mandated. “Both in the state and nationally, we’ve got a lot of people that are in jail, especially on nonviolent offenses. These are people that could come out and they could probably go to work tomorrow if we gave them the opportunity,” he said. The Associated Press writes that sentencing reform has stalled in the Senate in the past, however.
While some states debate how to accelerate decarceration trends, Nevada is confronting the continued growth of its prison population. The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice (a panel that includes lawmakers, judges, law enforcement representatives, and reform advocates) approved a report on incarceration in Nevada on an 11-4 vote. According to the report, which you can read in full here, Nevada’s prison population grew by 14 percent between 2010 and 2016, and it is projected to grow by 9 percent by 2028. The length of incarceration for people convicted of drug offenses has increased by 30 percent since 2012. In addition, the report documents very stark increases in the incarceration rate of women and in the number of women incarcerated for violating probation or parole conditions.
The report also lists 25 policy recommendations that “would avert 89 percent of the projected [10-year] prison population growth,” a far cry from many reformers’ decarceration goals. Many of the proposals target the severity of sentences and charges sought for some low-level offenses, for instance by tripling the threshold at which a theft would count as a felony rather than a misdemeanor; others seek to loosen parole or probation violations. These recommendations are now largely in the hands of Democrats, who seized control of the state government in November. At the time, Nevada Current’s Michael Lyle reported on a broader range of reforms that Democrats may push through in the coming legislative session. (See also: The Political Report on the viability of reforming Nevada’s harsh felony disenfranchisement laws.)
New Mexico
The Albuquerque Journal’s Mike Gallagher has written a five-part series on the conversations happening in New Mexico on whether to legalize marijuana. The second part covers the debates regarding the policy details. That includes how to regulate and tax sales and cultivation, but also how to confront the harm caused by the criminalization of marijuana and to redress past marijuana convictions. The fifth part investigates the viability of reform in the current legislative session: The new Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham cautiously supports legalization, and Democratic gains in the state House make it likely that the chamber would pass such a measure. But odds are dicier in the state Senate; legalization proponents would need to win over either one Democrat who is on record as opposing it or one Republican.
New York
The Buffalo News has published an explainer about Andrew Cuomo’s plan to legalize adult recreational marijuana use. Among its insights, the article notes that Cuomo’s legal basis for the plan is that legalization is “necessary to properly regulate and control” marijuana production and sale for the purposes of public health and “social equality.” The plan calls for creating an agency called the Office of Cannabis Management “to limit, or not to limit” the number of licenses, regulate potency, and even halt cultivation and sales in the case of a public emergency. The plan would allow counties and cities to opt out, and not permit cultivation or retail sale facilities. Cuomo projects the state will, after a few years, make $300 million a year from three taxes on the marijuana supply chain. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a sponsor of the Assembly’s recreational marijuana legalization bill, is optimistic about the plan, but wants to see more specifics about, for example, steering some tax revenues to “communities devastated by mass incarceration.”
The death penalty is inscribed in Oregon’s state Constitution, which prevents its outright abolition via regular legislation. But Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that some Democratic lawmakers are pushing to shrink its scope. Possible changes include creating a higher standard in jury deliberations and shrinking the definition of aggravated murder (the only homicide charge that can result in the death penalty in Oregon) so it covers fewer circumstances.