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With many state legislative sessions entering crunch time, the action on criminal justice reform has been picking up. Americans are changing the dialogue on second chances, addressing issues from sentencing and reentry to human dignity.

Nevada Hits Jackpot on Reform

Nevada just passed Assembly Bill 236, which addresses both sentencing and post-release issues.

This legislation establishes crisis intervention training and alternatives to jail for those with behavioral health needs. This will ensure that this population receives the help they need to no longer threaten public safety. The bill creates graduated sanctions for parolees, replacing the system in which technical violations result in reflexive imprisonment. It also adjusts penalties for drug and property crimes according to inflation. The resulting decrease in incarceration is projected to save taxpayers $543 million over ten years.

The Nevada legislature is considering reforms to their asset forfeiture programs. Criminal forfeiture is a tactic used by law enforcement to investigate criminal activity and promote public safety. Unfortunately, bad policy has allowed the practice to be abused. Due process is evaded, and innocent people have their property confiscated. Worse yet, the practice has generated a perverse incentive system that undermines the goals of law enforcement.

When forfeitures fund the departments that seize properties in the first place, two things result. Police confiscate property too zealously, to the detriment of civil liberties. They focus their limited resources on the low-level offenses associated with property seizures while neglecting more serious, violent crimes. Nevada’s Assembly Bill 420 proposes several reforms to solve these problems. First, the bill redirects the spoils of forfeiture to the state’s permanent education fund. Forfeitures can only be used by law enforcement to pay outstanding liens and reasonable enforcement expenses, not to include personnel costs. It also creates paths to mitigate forfeitures through petitions and pretrial hearings. The legislation also establishes requirements of clear and convincing evidence for property seizures while reaffirming the rights of law enforcement to conduct appropriate, legal criminal forfeiture.

Pennsylvania Sets the Table for More Wins

The Pennsylvania house has introduced legislation to reform parole and help former inmates successfully transition back into society. The litany of technical regulations one can unknowingly violate make it all too easy for those on parole to be sent back to prison. Under House Bill 1555, parolees would not be reincarcerated for technical violations such as traveling outside one’s jurisdiction or associating with another person with a criminal record. It would also end the practice of lengthening parole time for those who cannot afford to pay off their fines. This data-driven approach to reentry will reduce recidivism and help reformed convicts get back on their feet.

State Senator, and Taxpayer Protection Pledge Signer, John DiSanto is sponsoring legislation (SB 637) to enact occupational licensing reforms that will remove unnecessary barriers to employment for people leaving the criminal justice system.

Mississippi Making Rapid Progress

Meanwhile, Mississippi is making strides in alternative sentencing. Too many people are locked away in prison with no opportunity for genuine rehabilitation. Those with mental health and addiction problems may enter and leave prison without receiving the help that they need, their mental states further deteriorating in the process; these people are not evil, they are sick. This Wednesday, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law House Bill 1352, which authorizes the creation of intervention courts, an alternative to prison time for certain nonviolent offenders. This includes drug courts, mental health courts, veteran courts, and juvenile justice pretrial intervention. These alternatives to prison are a cost-effective way of turning non-violent offenders into healthy, productive members of society. The bill also expands expungement possibilities and makes it less common to have a driver’s license revoked for low-level offenses, two important steps in facilitating successful reentry.

Flurry of Action in Colorado

A flurry of criminal justice bills have passed in Colorado. Former offenders will no longer have to check a box in the initial phase of job applications. Instead, employers will have to consider their criminal records on an individual basis. Several drug crimes will be changed from felonies to misdemeanors, correcting an overly aggressive tough-on-crime streak which did little to advance public safety. The state will also reclassify sexual assault and sexual misconduct by peace officers to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

Wisconsin to Finally Act?

Lastly, the expungement process is being reexamined in Wisconsin. Currently, the state only grants expungements at the time of sentencing. People who are truly rehabilitated while serving their time are automatically denied a chance at a clean slate.

Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 39, cosponsored by Representative Katrina Shankland (D-71) will allow people to file petitions for expungement after completion of a sentence. It also removes the requirement that only crimes commit under the age of 25 are eligible for expungement, an arbitrary regulation which did nothing to promote public safety or rehabilitation. This legislation will remove unnecessary obstacles to employment for reformed offenders. Paving the path to post-release success improves the lives of the formerly incarcerated, reduces recidivism, and saves Americans money on incarceration costs.