States Taking Action to Improve Criminal Justice this Session

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Posted by Tabitha Jackson on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020, 11:40 AM PERMALINK

Federal and state prisons in the U.S. have seen a drastic increase in population over the last 40 years, with 1.5 million people incarcerated. That is just one sign of a criminal justice system that is wasting taxpayer resources, and needs attention.

State legislators across the country are working to improve public safety by pursuing reforms that are tough on crime and smart on criminal justice.

Florida

Florida lawmakers are among those trying to pass criminal justice reform bills in their state –with a focus on reducing excessive sentences for nonviolent drug offenders who are addicts, not dangerous criminals.

Senate Bill 346, sponsored by Senator Rob Bradley, allows for a judge to impose less than the mandatory minimum sentence for non-violent offenders caught with illegal drugs. The bill passed unanimously through three committee hearings and was adopted last Wednesday without debate in a 39-1 floor vote.

This legislation is not only beneficial to those incarcerated, but also to taxpayers. The measure is expected to reduce the state’s 96,000 prison population by 4,800 for a potential savings of $50 million.

Similar to this legislation is House Bill 339 from Representative Alex Andrade and 27 co-sponsors. This bill holds that non-violent offenders convicted of possessing or selling less than 2 grams of a controlled substance, other than fentanyl, may not be imprisoned longer than 12 months if it is their first drug-possession conviction. The bill has not been heard in committee yet.

Oregon

Currently in Oregon, unpaid fines could result in a suspended driver’s license, harming those who cannot afford to pay over offenses that don’t demonstrate a risk to safety on the roads. This creates a loop where people who cannot pay a fine lose their license and have trouble getting to work, then drive without a license and incur a more serious charge.

Oregon legislators hope to put an end to this by advancing House Bill 4065, which seeks to stop courts from suspending licenses over unpaid traffic tickets. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Gorsek, Rep. Jeff Barker, Sen. James Manning Jr., Rep. Janelle Bynum, Rep. Ronald Noble, and Rep. Carla Piluso, passed the House with bipartisan support 42-16.

The bill has moved to the Senate and has received a do pass recommendation from committee.

Virginia

Virginia joins Oregon with its fight to end the suspension of drivers licenses due to nonpayment of fines or costs by passing Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Senator William Stanley. The bill passed the General Assembly last week and is headed to the governor's desk to be signed into law.

Utah

Add Utah to the list of license suspension reformers thanks to House Bill 146, sponsored by Representative Cory Maloy. This bill ensures that the state no longer suspends an individual’s driver license for failure to pay fines or failure to appear in court for many offenses. The bill is awaiting action in the House.

Connecticut

Connecticut may pass a “Clean Slate Initiative” bill, following the lead of Utah and Pennsylvania.

Governor Ned Lamont expressed support for a bill which would expunge certain criminal records. The purpose of the bill is to lower the barriers people with nonviolent criminal records face when applying to jobs or trying to obtain housing.

Lamont’s criminal justice agenda also includes a proposal that would erase the least serious of offenses, if individuals are not convicted of another crime within seven years from the date of their original conviction. Offenders who do not commit another crime within five years are very unlikely to do so.

Kentucky

Kentucky has two criminal justice reform bills at work.

Sponsored by Representative Kevin Bratcher, House Bill 327 would allow automatic expungement of a defendant’s criminal history 30 days after the defendant was found not guilty, or after the charges were dismissed or acquitted. Currently, these charges stay on a person’s criminal background check, even though there was never a conviction. The bill is awaiting action in the Senate after passing the House 91-0.

Also passed onto the Senate is House Bill 284, sponsored by Representative Derek Lewis. Under this bill, inmates who successfully complete an approved drug treatment program will be eligible for credits to reduce their time on probation.

Arizona

Arizona has several criminal justice reform bills making their way through the House and Senate.

Sponsored by Representative Walter Blackman, House Bill 2808 was unanimously passed in the House. It would increase the amount of earned release credits nonviolent offenders can get through participation in drug treatment or a “major self-improvement program” while incarcerated. Considering 90% of people in prison will be released some day, it is a good idea to get them prepared to contribute in society and not repeat the same behaviors.

Another criminal justice reform bill passing through the Arizona House is House Bill 2882, sponsored by Representative Russell Bowers. This bill allows those who have completed a sentence in the juvenile justice system, excluding violent crimes, sex crimes, and crimes against a child, to apply for expungement after 5 years as long as they aren’t currently charged with a crime and have not reoffended.

Senate Bill 1171, sponsored by Senator J.D. Mesnard, is intended to make the criminal justice system in Arizona more transparent.

Data released under this legislation will show people how prosecutors across the state are making choices to impact the lives of crime victims and communities. Arizonans will be able to see who is being arrested, tried, convicted, and how/ why they are being sentenced. The bill is currently pending in the Senate Rules Committee.

Also passing through the Senate is Senate Bill 1556, sponsored by Senator Eddie Farnsworth, Senator Warren Petersen, and Representative Travis Grantham.

This bill is intended to stop civil asset forfeiture abuse by requiring conviction for forfeiture in most cases, and also requiring the state to show the owner had knowledge their property was going to be involved in illegal activity.

Mississippi

Mississippi is another notable state working to push along criminal justice reform bills in their state.

Senate Bill 2123, sponsored by Senator Derrick Simmons, aims to safely and effectively reduce the prison population over the short and long term by restoring parole eligibility for ‘three strikes’ offenders, unless convicted of a violent crime. The bill is currently passing through the Senate.

House Bill 1024, sponsored by Representative Nick Bain, reduces the scope of the ‘three strikes' policy by requiring an inmate to be convicted of a third felony within 15 years in order to receive the automatic maximum penalty for the offense. This legislation has passed through the House and is being passed to the Senate.

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

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