State Lawmakers Work Across Party Lines to Pass Criminal Justice Reforms

Posted on

Congressional representatives in our nation’s capital continue to battle it out over health care and tax code reform, leaving some observers to call it the least productive session in recent memory following the election of a new government.

In stark contrast, recent criminal justice reforms in half a dozen states – including Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, and North Dakota – reflect a significant departure from status quo Beltway politics in two ways.

First, while partisan rancor continues to paralyze Washington, state lawmakers are crossing party lines to pass landmark criminal justice reform, an issue that has historically divided stakeholders. And many of these legislative packages were approved by both Republican and Democratic governors alike.

For example, in Nevada which concluded its legislative session on June 6, 25 bills seeking to reform the state’s prison, parole, probation, and juvenile detention systems were passed and signed by Republican Governor Brian Sandoval, with 12 bills receiving unanimous votes in both houses, both controlled by Democrats. (See Table 1 for a brief description of the major criminal justice bills).

Second, while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently urged prosecutors to impose the most serious charges for drug offenses, state lawmakers are moderating sentences for drug-related crimes. Republican North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation that reduces drug possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor for first-time offenders. Louisiana, which adjourned its regular legislative session on June 8, passed reforms address drug sentencing, allowing lighter sentences based on the weight of the drug.

These recent advances in criminal justice reform reflect the longstanding, local grassroots efforts of conservative and progressive advocacy groups, such as Right on Crime and the U.S. Justice Action network, to champion various reforms – ranging from the use of solitary confinement on juvenile offenders to alternatives to prison. Nonpartisan groups like the Council of State Governments and the Brennan Center for Justice provide technical assistance. In many cases, advocacy groups have been joined by unlikely partners—including business groups and law enforcement associations.

Democrats have long viewed criminal justice reform as a civil rights issue. Over the past decade or two, the willingness of Republican legislators to work across the political aisle and consider new alternatives has been driven by the recognition that previous policies were not reducing incarceration rates, and that the costs of the status quo has become increasingly prohibitive. The costs of housing a growing number of inmates have burdened state budgets. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the cost of housing a prisoner in California exceeds one year of tuition at Harvard University. In Nevada, for example, the state spent $243.9 million in 2015 on prisons, at an average cost of $17,851 per inmate. This amount is more than double the amount spent per pupil in Nevada’s K-12 public education, and the cost of resident tuition at the state’s two public four-year universities. In Louisiana, criminal justice reforms are expected to reduce the state’s prison population by 10 percent over the next decade, thus saving the state over $250 million.

Given the fiscal pressures, much of the new bipartisan-supported legislation aims to reduce recidivism. In Michigan and Nevada, almost one third of individuals released return to prison within three years, and half of those in Michigan are in jail for parole or probation violations. The recidivism rate is higher for Native American and African American youth and young adult (18-27) offenders.

Nevada adopted research-informed policies designed to increase the chances of successful re-entry, subsequently joining the ranks of 38 other states that have restored voting rights to ex-offenders, and 28 others (and 150 cities) who have adopted “ban the box” policies. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a bill initiating a new program that provides alternatives to ex-offenders who violate parole rather than returning them to prison. In Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, Governor John Bel Edwards signed legislation that expands alternatives to incarceration, including a drug court.

Further, in contrast to the harsh punitive measures coming down from Washington, states are looking to reduce costs by targeting reforms at persons who committed lesser offenses and by proposing alternatives to prison. Of the individuals serving time in state jails and prisons, a significant number are serving time for lesser offenses (including drug possession). In April, North Dakota passed a law that establishes probation as the presumptive sentence for low-level felonies. By freeing up corrections expenses over time, local political leaders can redirect the funds to other state priorities and programs.

Joining their Democratic colleagues, Republican legislators recognize also that long term success of criminal justice reforms depends on the provision of appropriate support to ex-offenders, including healthcare. In North Dakota, the Republican-led Legislature appropriated $7.5 million to provide behavioral health services to individuals who previously committed crimes. Louisiana’s Republican lawmakers dedicated a share of expected savings realized from a lower incarceration rate to programs to rehabilitate offenders. And new bipartisan supported legislation in Nevada improves the ability of the state to provide “counseling, health care services, and assistance with obtaining employment” to people who committed crimes in their past.

States, as laboratories of democracy, are modeling the ability of lawmakers to arrive at bipartisan solutions even when tackling the most controversial of issues. We must applaud their pursuit of sensible policies that seek to provide a second chance to many and rein in incarceration costs in a responsible way.

Table 1: Major Criminal Justice Reforms Considered during 2017 Legislative Session in Nevada


Bill No. Description Final Action
AB23 Authorizes the Division of Parole and Probation to establish and operate independent reporting facilities for the purpose of providing services to certain parolees and probationers. Signed by Governor.
AB25 Revises provisions relating to certain allowable deductions from the period of probation or sentence of a person. Signed by Governor.
AB26 Revises provisions governing the dissemination of certain records of criminal history to certain persons by the Central Repository for Nevada Records of Criminal History. Signed by Governor.
AB74 Revises provisions governing the disclosure of the name of an offender who tests positive for exposure to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Signed by Governor.
AB180 Enacts the Juvenile Justice Bill of Rights. Signed by Governor.
AB181 Revises provisions governing the restoration of civil rights to certain persons who have been convicted of felonies. Signed by Governor.
AB218 Authorizes a court in certain circumstances to depart from any mandatory sentencing enhancements to be imposed upon a person who is convicted as an adult for an offense committed when he or she was less than 18 years of age and reduce any mandatory minimum period of incarceration that such a person is required to serve. Signed by Governor.
AB243 Provides that the district court has exclusive jurisdiction for a motion to vacate a judgment of conviction of a victim of sex trafficking or involuntary servitude under certain circumstances. Signed by Governor.
AB251 Authorizes the State Board of Pardons Commissioners to commute certain sentences of juvenile offenders Signed by Governor.
AB251 Authorizes the State Board of Pardons Commissioners to commute certain sentences of juvenile offenders Signed by Governor.
AB253 Requires the court to conduct a hearing as soon as practicable on an application for a writ of habeas corpus relating to a person with mental illness or who is alleged to be a person with mental illness. Signed by Governor.
AB259 Revises provisions relating to certain criminal convictions and sentences Vetoed by Governor.
AB260 Requiring the appointment of a Committee on Prostitution and Human Trafficking; requiring the Committee to adopt regulations for the evaluation, certification and monitoring of programs for the treatment of persons convicted of solicitation for prostitution. Signed by Governor.
AB316 Revises provisions governing the services provided to an offender before the offender’s release. Signed by Governor.
AB327 Authorizes a person who was dishonorably discharged from probation to apply to a court for the sealing of records of criminal history relating to the conviction. Signed by Governor.
AB341 Authorizing an attorney who represents a child in juvenile proceedings to consult with and seek appointment of certain persons. Signed by Governor.
AB 376 Revising provisions governing the filing of a complaint after an arrest without a warrant. Vetoed by Governor.
AB377 Revises provisions relating to the competency of a defendant in a criminal case. Signed by Governor.
AB384 Revises provisions governing the consideration of the criminal history of an applicant for employment by the State or a county, city or unincorporated town. (“Ban the box.”) Signed by Governor.
AB395 Revises provisions governing juvenile justice, and provisions governing registration & community notification of juveniles adjudicated delinquent for committing certain sexual offenses. Signed by Governor.
AB411 Revises provisions governing employment with a department of juvenile justice services. Signed by Governor.
AB420 Authorizes the Director of the Department of Corrections to establish by regulation a charge on the use of videoconference equipment by offenders to conduct certain visits. Signed by Governor.
AB421 Authorizes the residential confinement of certain offenders who have been granted parole but are not yet eligible for release on parole; requires the coordination and oversight of certain care for a prisoner by a sheriff, chief of police or town marshal in certain counties and DHSS. Signed by Governor.
AB472 Establishes policies for reducing recidivism rates and improving other outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system. Signed by Governor.
SB125 Revises provisions governing restoration of certain civil rights to certain persons who have been convicted of felonies; revises provisions governing the sealing of criminal records of a person. Signed by Governor.
SB268 Requires the Department of Corrections to verify the full legal name and age of an offender who is to be released by obtaining certain documents before providing a photo identification card to the offender; authorizes for children in a detention center to receive certain information and assistance to a person who is to be released from a jail or detention facility. Signed by Governor.
SB306 Expands the authorization for offenders to have access to telecommunications devices under certain circumstances. Signed by Governor.
SB473 Excludes juveniles from increased penalties for certain sexual offenses. Signed by Governor.


Note: An abridged version of this blog appeared in Detroit News on July 31, 2017.