Over the past decade, many states and the federal government under President Obama passed laws and enacted policies chipping away at mass incarceration in the U.S. using various methods. While the federal government under Donald Trump has now swung back to a punitive, tough on crime approach, many states have ramped up their efforts to address the hideous statistic that more than two million people are incarcerated in the U.S. – more than in any other country in the world.
Of every 100,000 people in the U.S., 737 are behind bars. According to the Sentencing Project, “the 500 percent increase in incarceration rates in the U.S. over the past 40 years can be attributed to changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates.” “These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and fiscal burdens on states to accommodate a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety.”
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, which follows trends in criminal justice and advocates for reforms. Here he provides an overview of the direction of criminal justice laws and policies, and the success of criminal justice reform initiatives in states across America in 2019.
MARC MAUER: You know, at least half the states adopted some type of criminal justice reform policy in 2019, either scaling back criminal penalties, dealing with the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, the denial of public benefits and the like, restoration of voting rights, changes to mail policies. So there’s very much been a continuing trend for a decade now of states looking to address mass incarceration and recognizing that the four-decade explosion of the prison population has brought about very great cost for human suffering for taxpayer budgets, with diminishing returns for public safety.
MELINDA TUHUS: So, let’s talk about some of these developments.
MARC MAUER: Well, the New York law passed in 2019 essentially eliminates cash bail for anyone charged with a misdemeanor crime and for many people charged with a felony. And this is building on the momentum to attack cash bail that’s picked up speed over the last several years. It’s finally become increasingly obvious to both people in the community and policymakers that deciding pre-trial detention based on ability to pay is inherently just unfair to people without resources. What it means is that someone charged with a property offense has a $500 bail may spend weeks or months in jail awaiting trial, while a white-collar defendant who has a million dollar bail may post that and be home and consult with a lawyer prior to trial.
MELINDA TUHUS: So, I imagine this will help a huge number of people.
MARC MAUER: Yes, very much so. New York can affect tens of thousands of people. In New Jersey several years ago, the state legislature adopted legislation that more or less does away with bail bondsmen as the operators who post many of the bails for people and take significant fees for doing so, and they now rely on the courts to administer the release system themselves, and they’ve experienced a significant reduction of several thousand people in the total jail population in the state essentially as a result of this new pre-trial release program.
MELINDA TUHUS: Marc Mauer, what criminal justice reforms can you tell us from other states?
MARC MAUER: California has been on a significant trend toward reducing its prison population over a decade now, and there’s been a 30 percent reduction overall in the number of people in prison.
And just now a law is going into effect that will cut sentences significantly. Previously, California had a policy where if you were convicted of a felony and had a prior prison or jail sentence for a felony, you got an additional one-year enhancement on the new felony. The legislature has now done away with that enhancement, essentially saying, You did your time for the first felony. We shouldn’t punish you again for that. So if you go to prison, you get your sentence, but no additional one-year enhancement.
And the estimates are that 10,000 people currently in California prisons have been subject to that enhancement, and that will now be reduced, so very substantial change there, it will have significant impact on the number of people behind bars.
MELINDA TUHUS: Any other highlights to talk about?
MARC MAUER: 2019 also saw rapid momentum on scaling back felony disenfranchisement – the loss of voting rights following a felony conviction. So, three states extended voting (rights) to people under probation or parole supervision – Colorado, Nevada and New Jersey. The most significant impact is in New Jersey where an estimated 83,000 people have regained to vote there.
We also saw activity in Kentucky, where the incoming governor, Andy Brashear, through executive order, restored voting rights to anyone who had completed a felony sentence for a non-violent offense. Kentucky’s underlying policy is one of the most restrictive in the country. It’s a lifetime ban on voting for any felony unless you get a pardon from the governor.
So the estimates in Kentucky are that more than 100,000 people have regained the right to vote through this executive order. So the trend has been very encouraging from my perspective; and yet, millions of people will still not be able to vote in the November elections because of these policies around the country.
For more information, visit the Sentencing Project at sentencingproject.org.