Giving Compass' Take:

• Prison Policy Initiative highlights criminal justice reforms that states could make in 2020. 

• How can funders support criminal justice reforms? Which reforms would be most likely to make headway in your state? 

• Learn about supporting criminal justice reform

Reducing pretrial detention

Problem: Many people who face criminal charges are unnecessarily detained before trial. Ofen the sole criteria for release is access to money for bail. Tis puts more pressure on defendants to accept plea bargains, and destabilizes the life of the person who is incarcerated, which can result in the loss of an apartment, a job, and even custody of children. It also leads to jail overcrowding which drives the need for more and bigger jails, thus wasting taxpayer dollars.

Solutions: States are addressing this problem with a variety of approaches, including bail reform, ending money bail, pretrial services including monitoring and curfews, drug testing and treatment, and postcard or phone reminders to appear in court.

Decreasing state incarceration rates by reducing jail populations

Problem: One out of every three people behind bars is being held in a local jail. Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too ofen state policymakers ignore jails. Spending time in jail leads to a number of collateral consequences and other financial roadblocks to successful reentry, and higher recidivism rates that lead to higher state prison populations.

Solutions: States should address state causes of growing local jail populations. Although local practices and federal laws also impact jail incarceration rates, there are discrete small steps that state legislatures can take that would have a big impact, such as:

  • Encourage judges to use non-monetary sanctions, rather than fines and fees, and ensure that judges are holding indigency hearings before imposing and enforcing unaffordable fees.
  • Reclassify criminal offenses and turn misdemeanor charges that don’t threaten public safety into non-jailable infractions.
  • Make citations, rather than arrest, the default action for certain low-level crimes.
Shortening excessive prison sentences

Problem: Nationally, one of every six people in state prisons have been incarcerated for a decade or more. While many states have taken laudable steps to reduce the number of people serving time for low-level offenses, little has been done to bring relief to people needlessly serving decades in prison.

Solution: State legislative strategies include: enacting presumptive parole, second-look sentencing, and other common-sense reforms, such as expanding good time.