States At Criminal Justice Crossroads: Which Penalties To Cut Or Toughen?


After decades of “tough on crime” policies, many states are taking a hard look at the way people are charged, how much time they serve, and what happens when they are released, reports Stateline. Many states are looking at growing prison populations, obstacles to drug treatment, and high recidivism rates as reasons to re-evaluate their criminal justice systems. Many states are at a crossroads, weighing whether to build new prisons or change how they sentence people and guide them through parole and probation. Several states, including Alaska, Maryland, and Rhode Island, are considering sweeping criminal justice changes that would ease some of the punitive policies of the 1980s and '90s, especially for drug offenders. “If there's a theme or common denominator, it is policymakers asking what the science says will work,” said Michael Thompson of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “The question they're asking is, 'Can we get a better return on our investment?' “

States that want to decrease the number of people going to prison often turn to reducing sentences, either by scrapping mandatory minimums or reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors. They may also divert people into treatment for drug addiction or mental illness. States that are adjusting sentences aren't just shortening them. Last year, Maine reduced sentences for some drug possession crimes, but increased them for cocaine and fentanyl powder, one of the opioids that have concerned state leaders as they battle heroin addiction. “The dichotomy feels like legislators have a split personality,” said Alison Holcomb of the American Civil Liberties Union's Campaign for Smart Justice. Reducing sentences could have unintended consequences. In Utah, Rep. Eric Hutchings, a Republican, said the reclassification of some crimes as misdemeanors blocked some people from drug courts and treatment programs meant only for felons — something he said the state will fix this year.

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