Criminal Justice Reform Trend Emerges As State Legislative Sessions End

In February, ThinkProgress wrote about an unexpected silver lining in the state budget crunches: prison reform. Cash-starved state budgets provided a prime opportunity to institute a more sensible approach to criminal justice, rather than simply throw millions in prison with no regard for cost or fairness.

Seven months later, with most state legislatures finished for the year, the promise of criminal justice reform has been enacted in a number of states, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU highlights two particular success stories in Kentucky and Ohio.

The reforms in Kentucky’s HB 463 include:

– Eliminates pre-trial detention for many drug offenses; mandates citations instead of arrests for some misdemeanors.

– Reclassifies marijuana possession to a misdemeanor; presumes probation for simple possession of many drugs; reduces sentences for other drug crimes; offers non-prison alternatives for felony possession.

– Expands earned credit programs for prison and parole.

As a result, Kentucky is “expected to reduce the prison population by 3,218” this year and make further reductions in the future. The state will also save more than $400 million over the next decade.

Similarly in Ohio, HB 86 will make structural reforms to the state prison system:

– Eliminates crack/cocaine disparity; reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes; mandates non-prison alternatives for misdemeanors and low-level felonies; increases property crime thresholds.

– Expands earned credit programs; expands parole eligibility; gives prisoners over the age of 65 additional parole hearings; provides financial incentives for counties to reduce technical violation revocations.

– Gives judges more discretion to keep juveniles out of the adult system.

Projections show Ohio’s prison population reducing 13.8 percent over the next four years and save the state approximately $1 billion as a result of the new law.

The ACLU notes that other states are moving in a positive direction as well. In California, the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Plata “ordered California to reduce its prison population to alleviate extreme overcrowding.” Meanwhile, a new law in Louisiana will create an elderly parole program in order to determine whether some prisoners age 60 or older no longer pose a threat to society.

By no means are all the changes this year perfect. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) chose as the head of Ohio’s prison system Gary Mohr, the former director of the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that lobbies for legislation that would throw more people in jail.

Yet the overall trend this year has been towards a smarter, more sensible criminal justice policy in many states across the country. State budget crunches are forcing conservative state lawmakers to see the wisdom of prison reform, providing a rare area of bipartisan agreement. The true test, however, will be whether reform efforts are stifled when the economy begins to pick up.