Forty-six states made at least 201 changes to their laws on sentencing and corrections in 2014 and 2015, an “increase in pace” since an analysis of state changes three years ago, reports the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. The Vera report said most of the state actions focused on three stages of the criminal justice system: creating or expanding diversion of people from entering the system; reducing prison populations by making some offenses eligible for community-based sentences, reducing the length and severity of sentences, adding early release options, reducing the number of people re-admitted for violating probation or parole, and supporting prisoner reentry into the community.
Vera singled out several legislative trends in criminal justice reform. In the bail area, several states have addressed the overuse of pretrial detention, especially for those unable to make bail. Some states are enacting legislation to waive some fees for defendants, allow payment plans for restitution, and limit the use of incarceration as a penalty for non-payment. To deal with the opioid crisis, some states are passing laws incorporating medical-assisted treatment to supplement existing or new treatment approaches, both in custody and in the community. States also are reducing the use of solitary confinement and improving conditions and treatment for those in solitary.
Putting Young Students on the Right Path: Ending Discretionary Suspensions in Texas
What’s Happening Across Texas
Texas elementary schoolchildren — some as young as four — are suspended and sent to alternative schools at alarming rates. During the 2013-2014 school year, almost half of all elementary school suspensions in Texas were issued to pre-K through 2nd grade students. Students are often removed from school for minor Student Code of Conduct violations such as horseplay, disruption of class, or dress code violations. These removals are not required under state law — they are ultimately left to the teacher’s discretion (hence the term “discretionary”). Furthermore, school districts have the ability to create their own student codes of conduct that go well beyond state law, allowing suspensions of our youngest students for normal, age-appropriate behavior. Texas Appleseed is working to change this harmful practice. There are better, proven solutions available to teachers and schools than these discretionary suspensions.
Juvenile justice advocates receive little glory, but they deserve much credit for the wave of state activity this year aimed at protecting youth from the harms of adult court prosecution.
Consider just a few recent developments in diverse regions of the country. In the last few weeks, legislatures in Louisiana and South Carolina passed bills — awaiting their governors’ signatures — to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18. Michigan will soon vote on a similar bill. In Indiana, lawmakers approved giving youth more chances to avoid adult prosecution. Vermont scaled back prosecutors’ power to “direct file” children in adult court this session, and California Gov. Jerry Brown is backing a ballot initiative this year to eliminate prosecutorial direct file altogether and return discretion for transfer decisions to judges.