With more than 2.2 million people in prisons and jails and 4.6 million on probation or parole, the need to address mass incarceration in the United States is as urgent as ever. A number of states responded to this crisis by introducing important criminal justice reforms last year.
The Sentencing Project reports that lawmakers in several states enacted sentencing reforms aimed at reducing the number of people in prison. Louisiana expanded probation eligibility to people convicted of third-time nonviolent offenses and first-time low-level violent offenses and made more people eligible for treatment alternatives and drug courts. Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, and Montana adopted a range of reforms, including expanding probation eligibility, reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors, streamlining the parole review process, and limiting imprisonment for technical violations.
Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2017 highlights legislation in New Jersey, Arkansas, and Vermont designed to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. New Jersey lawmakers committed to using racial impact statements to evaluate proposed sentencing legislation for potential racial disparities, and Vermont established a racial justice reform oversight board to confront structural racism and assess how it contributes to disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system.
New York and North Carolina – the only states in the country that automatically prosecuted all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults – adopted reforms directing that teenagers should be adjudicated in the juvenile justice system. New York "raised the age" for all misdemeanors and most felony offenses, and North Carolina will now adjudicate in juvenile court all children under 18 accused of nonviolent offenses.
Four states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, and North Dakota – addressed the collateral consequences of incarceration by opting out or modifying federal restrictions on public assistance for people with felony records. Arkansas, Lousiana, and North Dakota eliminated the federal lifetime ban on food stamps for those with felony drug convictions, and Maryland eliminated testing and treatment requirements for people with felony drug convictions.
Louisiana, Maryland, and Utah also enacted measures restricting when colleges, universities, and employers may ask applicants if they have criminal records.
State-level reforms are especially critical because the vast majority of incarcerated people are in state prisons or local jails. Last year continued an ongoing trend of states leading the way in finding innovative ways to reduce incarceration.