By Alexis Rios-Jimenez
WASHINGTON, DC – The “Top Trends in Criminal Justice Reform, 2022” report was released this past week by The Sentencing Project, which focuses on addressing decarceration in the U.S. as well as seeking to fight against racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The report makes it a point to emphasize the important issues tackled in criminal justice policy in 2022, including “extreme sentencing, expanding voting rights and advancing youth justice,” and provides notable efforts that have been made on these respective issues.
The “fact sheet” the organization’s website provides shows startling statistics on ongoing issues regarding incarceration in the U.S., noting as recently as 2020 approximately 100 million people held a criminal record, with 19 million having a felony conviction.
The report notes ongoing efforts aimed at enacting reforms that have been slowed due to a rise in violent crime in the past couple years, which has consequently resulted in a reorganized approach toward progress.
“The evolving framework is rooted in reducing returns to prison for technical violations, expanding alternatives to prison for persons convicted of low level offenses and authorizing earned release for prisoners who complete certain rehabilitation programs,” said The Sentencing Project.
On the issue of extreme sentencing and decarceration reform, the report notes Washington D.C.’s unanimous council approval of the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 (RCCA).
The bill’s passage and implementation will have, “eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences, lowered maximum sentences to 45 years, eliminated accomplice liability for felony murder, and expanded judicial reconsideration for all persons serving long prison terms,” argued The Sentencing Project.
Additionally, the project said the RCCA would allow “individuals convicted of offenses committed after their 25th birthday to submit a petition for resentencing after serving 20 years,” although the bill’s passage is still not certain as it must still “survive a 60-day congressional review period as of December 2022.”
In the area of racial disparity, the report provides California’s adoption of Assembly Bill 256, the Racial Justice Act for All, as an example of ongoing progress.
The adoption of the bill will “allow persons with convictions or judgments prior to January 1, 2021, to petition the court and seek relief if racial bias was proven to be present in their case.”
On drug policy reform, The Sentencing Project highlights Kentucky’s adoption of Senate Bill 90, which the project said “authorizes the establishment of pilot behavioral health conditional dismissal programs in at least 10 Kentucky counties selected by the Kentucky Supreme Court chief justice for persons charged with certain low-level drug offenses.”
In Maryland, recreational marijuana was approved by 66 percent of voters, said The Sentencing Project, adding that in Missouri 53 percent of voters authorized marijuana use through Constitutional Amendment 3, and Colorado saw “54% of voters approved Proposition 122 to decriminalize certain psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms.”
The Sentencing Project does note the alarming number of people who end up incarcerated due to “technical probation and parole violations,” crediting Florida and Oklahoma with enacting legislative policies aimed at reducing “time served requirements for successful participation in rehabilitation programs that include vocational training, education, and substance abuse treatment.”
The report also provided insight on the incredible efforts done in the pursuit of abolishing involuntary servitude and slavery.
Notably, The Sentencing Project lists Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont with adopting ballot measures to “remove language from their state constitutions allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for the conviction of a crime.”
Expanding the right to vote has been a mainstay of many involved in the fight for the reforming of the justice system and civil rights for a long time, and The Sentencing Project details how this year saw about 4.6 million citizens be denied the right to vote due to prior felony convictions. (Massachusetts and Washington OK’d efforts to “guarantee ballot access for incarcerated voters.”)
The promotion of youth justice is particularly highlighted in the report, with The Sentencing Project noting, “Lawmakers adopted policies that demonstrated a commitment to protecting young defendants and expanding release options for persons sentenced in their youth. These changes in policy continue a trend that seeks to change the response to juvenile crime.”
Credited with implementing strategic policy changes on this issue are the states of Indiana, which passed House Bill 1359; Maryland, with enacting Senate Bill 691; Tennessee, with its Supreme Court ruling mandatory 51-life sentence for youth unconstitutional, and Wyoming, following its enacting of House Bill 37 which requires the Department of Family Services to “collect juvenile justice data from state and local governments to standardize juvenile justice information.”
In light of the many legislative successes that have taken place in 2022, The Sentencing Project comments, “Despite reforms, policies were adopted that might exacerbate mass incarceration and lengthen sentences.”
The Sentencing Project reflects, “Most of these (2022) measures will have a modest impact on the scale of incarceration or its consequences, and, while helpful, more comprehensive reforms are needed to transform the adult and youth legal systems to meaningfully challenge mass incarceration.”