ISSUE #2: Criminal Justice Reform

States continue to lead the way, with some promising federal changes on the horizon.

The big picture: Federal and state policymakers continue to look for ways to reform the criminal justice system to address racial disparities as well as ballooning costs. Broad trends to watch include changes to local law officials’ ability to enforce immigration laws, bail reform, and marijuana legalization. Another important opportunity for criminal justice reform is to examine the role of  local prosecutors, elected officials with significant authority within the criminal justice system (find more about your local prosecutors here). At the state level in 2018, action to reform the criminal justice system varied, but generally focused on reducing the number of people in prison. In April, Mississippi adopted changes to keep people out of jail when they cannot pay fines and court fees. In May, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation that, among other things, reduces penalties for low-level drug offenses. A number of ballot initiatives related to criminal justice passed in November, including Florida’s Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to people with felony convictions (roughly 1.5 million people in the state). The state’s Amendment 11 also passed, which will allow changes to criminal laws to apply retroactively, thus releasing some people from prison.

On the horizon: The bipartisan First Step Act, which includes important sentencing changes, could become law in 2019. The bill passed the House in 2018 and President Trump has pledged to sign it. We’re waiting to see if conservatives in the Senate will lend support. The First Step Act would mandate changes to the federal Bureau of Prisons system, including increasing the amount of credit inmates can earn toward their release for good behavior; expanding access to rehabilitation programs, halfway houses, and job training; banning the shackling of pregnant inmates; and lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, among other measures.

We’ll also be watching state legislatures for movement on proposals within ballot initiatives that failed in November, such as Ohio’s Issue 1, which would have reduced drug penalties and redirected resources to community-based treatment.