Half of States Acted This Year to Reduce Penalties for Low-Level Offenders

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Faced with overcrowded prisons and evidence that lengthy sentences don’t deter crime, more states opted this year to revamp sentencing laws and send some people convicted of lesser, nonviolent crimes to local jails, if they’re locked up at all, reports Stateline.

In an about-face after a half-century of criminal justice policies that favored long-term incarceration, Alaska, Kansas, and Maryland joined at least 25 other states in reducing sentences or keeping some offenders out of prison. The move to end lengthy prison stays for low-level offenders is one of several steps states took in reevaluating criminal justice policies during legislative sessions that have wrapped up in all but a few places. Other measures would help offenders transition back into their communities after release and hold police more accountable.

For years, many lawmakers were wary of appearing soft on crime. States have recently retooled criminal justice policies in response to tight post-recession budgets, shifting public opinion, and court rulings demanding they ease prison overcrowding. “For a long time, the fact that America had more people in prison than anywhere else in the world wasn’t something that we were acutely aware of or embarrassed by,” said Tim Young, the top public defender in Ohio, where a group of criminal justice and public safety officials and experts are rewriting the state’s criminal code. The number of state and federal prisoners dropped by 28,600 between 2011 and 2012 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding violated prisoners’ rights to physical and mental health care, and California began diverting nonviolent offenders to serve their sentences in local jails and under community supervision.

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