The United States is the world leader in incarceration and keeps nearly 7 million persons under correctional control. More than 2 million are in prison or jail, and 4.6 million are under community surveillance on probation or parole. At least 19 million persons are living with a felony conviction while an estimated 100 million have a criminal record. The persistence of extremely punitive sentencing laws and policies, not increases in crime rates, sustain the nation’s high rate of incarceration. Ending mass incarceration requires a transformative change to sentencing policies and practices aligned with the scaling back of collateral consequences of conviction, and challenging racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In recent years most states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and the impact of the collateral consequences. This briefing paper highlights key reforms undertaken in 2020 prioritized by The Sentencing Project.
Expanding Prison Releases Amid The Pandemic
People housed in congregate settings, like state prisons and jails, experience higher rates of COVID-19 infections and morbidities than the general population. The cumulative infections among incarcerated residents are nearly five times higher than the general population. During the 2020 pandemic, several states took steps to reduce prison population levels. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that correctional facilities be reduced to the optimal population level of state prisons to follow public health guidelines, considering overcrowding, the physical design and prison conditions, and delivery of health services to the incarcerated population.
Scaling Back Sentencing Practices
State officials enacted legal reforms to reduce prison admissions and recalibrated punishments to address extreme sentencing practices. Adopted changes are part of ongoing efforts to address the nation’s incarceration growth.
Taking A Second Look At Extreme Sentences & Recognizing The Capacity To Change
Second Look and sentencing review reforms allow courts, parole boards, or other entities to consider release petitions and recognize the capacity for change among persons sentenced to prison. Expanding sentencing practices to include universal second look reviews, without age or offense restrictions, allow midsentence adjustments for persons imprisoned to life and other extreme sentences.
Challenging Racial Disparity
Racial disparities persist and can be exacerbated by decarceration if lawmakers and practitioners do not take the necessary steps to address them and repair the harm. Addressing disparities requires intentional actions on behalf of policymakers and practitioners.
Ending Collateral Consequences
Collateral consequences of convictions can follow justice-involved residents during and past the completion of their sentences and even years after incarceration. The results of these collateral consequences undermines the ability to fully participate in the community following a conviction and limits both economic and life opportunities. The time is now to enact structural changes to address and repair collateral harms and encourage full and active community participation for all people regardless of justice involvement.
Second Chance Reforms
At least 19 million residents live with felony convictions while an estimated 100 million live with a criminal record. Justice-involved residents often experience civil barriers that impact employment, housing, and access to public benefits long after criminal sentence completion. Several states took action to minimize the impact of past convictions or criminal justice involvement on individuals’ ability to fully function and participate in society without economic and social barriers and stigma.
Read the full article about prison reforms from 2020 at The Sentencing Project.
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