REPORT: Scope and Changes of 2023’s Criminal Justice Reforms in United States  

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By Kayla Meraz 

WASHINGTON, DC – In a report released this past week by the Sentencing Project, the author Nicole D. Porter highlights the changes made through the criminal reform of 2023 by examining the primary actions that formerly incarcerated activists, legislators and advocates took to oppose mass incarceration in about 10 states.

The U.S. is the global leader in incarceration, grappling with a mass incarceration crisis that has burgeoned by nearly 500 percent since 1973, resulting in the confinement of almost two million people, disproportionately impacting Black individuals, the report noted.

In 2023, stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated activists and lawmakers, undertook efforts to curtail mass incarceration, leading to policy reforms in decarceration, collateral consequences, and youth justice, the Sentencing Project said.

The report states that state lawmakers embraced legal changes to mitigate prison admissions and recalibrate penalties for certain crimes, and notable reforms include modifications to compassionate release policies, drug policy adjustments, and the implementation of second look mechanisms.

In New Mexico, Senate Bill 29 brought changes to the medical or compassionate release policies, expanding eligibility for geriatric medical release and lowering the age for elder parole to 55, and in North Carolina, House Bill 259 widened eligibility for geriatric medical release and allowed terminally ill individuals to petition for release.

Ohio voters approved the Marijuana Legalization Initiative by nearly 57 percent, marking a shift from punitive War on Drugs policies. And, more than 25 jurisdictions have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, reducing penalties to civil fines.

The report said “second look” policies gained traction in California, Colorado, and Minnesota. Assembly Bill 600 in California expanded court authority for sentence reconsideration, eliminating the requirement for prosecutorial concurrence.

Colorado’s House Bill 23-1293 allowed a second look for those sentenced to 24 years or more under the habitual offender statute. In Minnesota, Senate File 2909 enabled prosecutor-initiated second look resentencing.

Efforts to alleviate the lifelong consequences of criminal convictions manifested in voting rights guarantees and expungement reforms, which contributed to the scaling back collateral consequences, the Sentencing Project reported.

The project’s 2023 summary noted, Minnesota’s House File 28 extended voting rights to those on felony probation and parole, impacting nearly 50,000 eligible residents; New Mexico’s Voting Rights Act, House Bill 4 automatically restored voting rights to over 11,000 previously incarcerated residents and Michigan’s House Bill 4983 authorized automatic voter registration for individuals leaving prison.

Clean Slate Acts, facilitating record sealing, gained momentum in Minnesota and New York in 2023, the report added, and Senate File 2909 in Minnesota included the 2023 Clean Slate Act, allowing automatic expungement for certain offenses.

New York’s Clean Slate Act, Senate Bill 7551A permitted expungement for eligible individuals completing sentences, excluding serious crimes.

To promote youth justice, the SP report said policymakers in Connecticut, Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington State prioritized policies supporting young defendants and expanding release options.

For example, the annual report added, Connecticut’s Senate Bill 952 expanded youth parole eligibility, allowing sentence reviews after 60 percent of time served or 12 years for offenses with sentences of 50 years or less; Minnesota’s Senate File 2909 retroactively abolished life without parole for those under 18, establishing a Supervised Release Board; New Mexico’s Senate Bill 64 extended parole eligibility for individuals convicted as juveniles and  Washington State’s House Bill 1324 prevented juvenile adjudications from impacting adult sentencing range calculations.

Despite efforts to challenge mass incarceration, resistance persisted, charges the Sentencing Project, explaining the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 in the District of Columbia faced rejection, highlighting the challenge of achieving change. Some federal and state officials prioritized prison expansion over decarceration reforms.

While 2023 witnessed positive strides, more comprehensive reforms are needed, the report maintains, recommending reforming extreme sentencing statutes, guaranteeing voting rights for all justice-involved residents and decarcerating youth in custody – these reforms aim to address the root causes of mass incarceration and promote a fair and just criminal legal system.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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