There are now several states reversing a 20-year trend toward
ever-tougher criminal laws. Newspapers throughout the nation
report that a number of states this year have quietly rolled
back some of their most stringent anticrime measures, including
those imposing mandatory minimum sentences and forbidding early
These new laws, along with a voter initiative in California that
provides for treatment rather than prison for many drug offenders,
reflect a political climate that had changed markedly even before
the murderous events of September 11. Crime has fallen, the cost
of running prisons has exploded, and the economy has slowed.
Many state legislators and criminal justice experts are now quietly
urging sentencing and penal reform in numerous reports and forums.
After a two-decade boom in prison construction that quadrupled
the number of prisoners, the states now spend a total of $30
billion a year to operate their prisons, according to the Bureau
of Justice Statistics. With voters beginning to say that they
are more concerned about issues like education than street violence,
state legislators are finding they must cut the growth in prison
populations to satisfy the demand for new services and to balance
"I think these new laws are pretty significant with legislators
taking politically risky steps that would have been unthinkable
even a couple of years ago," said Michael Jacobson, a former
corrections commissioner for New York City who is now a professor
at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "When the spigot
stops, you are forced to look at the items that have grown the
most, and inevitably, in every state, it is corrections,"
Professor Jacobson said.
New additions to the list of states beginning to evaluate their
criminal laws include New York, Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico
and Idaho. States that this year dropped some 1990's sentencing
laws that required criminal to serve long terms without the possibility
of parole are Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana and North Dakota.
Iowa passed a similar law last spring, giving judges discretion
in imposing what had been a mandatory five-year sentence for
low-level drug crimes and certain property crimes, including
In May, Mississippi passed a law making first-time nonviolent
offenders eligible for parole after serving only 25 percent of
their sentences, instead of the 85 percent required under a law
enacted in 1994.
West Virginia, which has had one of the fastest-growing prison
systems, enacted a law to reduce the number of inmates by giving
money to local counties to develop alternatives to prison, like
electronic monitoring of people on probation and centers where
probationers would report each day.
"These may be small states, and the new laws are not comprehensive
reforms. However, it is very significant that these are not just
liberal northeastern states," said Nicholas Turner, director
of the State Sentencing and Corrections Project at the Vera Institute
of Justice in New York. Vera Institute is a research organization
working with a number of the states to reduce prison costs and
explore options instead of prison.
"What has happened this year in these states implies a lot
about a change in the political culture," concluded Turner.
State Representative Michael P. Lawlor, Democrat and chairman
of the Connecticut House judiciary committee, says he sees another
advantage to the new laws, including the one sponsored by Gov.
John G. Rowland, a Republican, that ends a decade-old system
of mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders. He said
the changes would help reduce huge racial disparities in who
goes to prison.
Nine out of 10 people in jail and prison in Connecticut for drug
offenses are black or Hispanic, Mr. Lawlor reportedly said, but
half of those arrested on drug charges are white. Part of the
problem, he insists, is a Connecticut law that established a
mandatory sentence for selling or possessing drugs within two-thirds
of a mile of a school, day care center or public housing project.
The result is that 90 percent of cities like Hartford or New
Haven are within these areas, and so poor and minority people
who live in these areas end up in prison for any drug charge.
"I think this is the most significant change in criminal
justice policy we have made in more than 10 years," Lawlor
said. "Two or three years from now you are going to be able
to look back and see the new law has made a tremendous impact
on who is in prison."
Source: email list communication with the Alliance of Reform
Organizations, hosted by Common Sense for Drug Policy www.csdp.org
Washington State's Department of Corrections
changes sentencing guidelines
On October 31, 2001, the Washington State Department of Corrections
(DOC) announced major changes in the sentencing guidelines for
non-violent offenders. This proposal will cause the release of
a significant number of State prisoners as well as the shortening
of new sentences (the proposal applies retroactively as well
as prospectively). DOC has also proposed changes to the "Three
The current budget crises have already opened up numerous possibilities
since the State can no longer afford to spend over $25,000 per
year to lock up people with substance abuse problems and mental
illness (compared to advantages of treatment programs costing
$3,000-5,000 per year). Washington State also can't afford to
lock people up for long periods of time after they no longer
pose a threat to their communities.
However, critical human services are being cut as well as most
other aspects of the State budget. County budgets are likewise
suffering from too much allocation of limited resources to the
criminal justice budgets (e.g., over two-thirds of the King County
general fund covers criminal justice expenses). Thus, a move
toward balancing the budget now requires a political shift toward
redressing sentencing injustices for many nonviolent prisoners.
For more information online see: www.wa.gov/doc/pressreleases/budgetcuts.doc.
South Dakota lawmakers: time to put up
or shut up
In a bold public challenge to South Dakota legislators on
September 5, Hermosa hemp activist Bob Newland wrote the following
In the series of letters-to-the-editor spawned by Rep. Art Fryslie
on Aug. 2, and including letters from Rep. Bob Weber Ray Aldridge
Rep. Al Koistinen, and me, one thing becomes clear. The opportunities
offered to South Dakota farmers by industrial hemp are irrelevant
to Fryslie and Koistinen.
Instead, Fryslie and Koistinen, the governor's lapdogs in law
enforcement, and a vocal minority of the legislature, continuously
cloud the hemp issue by bringing up the irrelevant subject of
marijuana prohibition. As if THAT program can defended.
Prohibition has accomplished many things. Prohibition has brought
us more drugs, more drug users, a steadily decreasing average
age at first drug use, huge political and law enforcement corruption,
and a boom in prison construction. Prohibition has made the most
vicious people on earth the richest people on earth. In thirty
years, it has brought us about 200,000 dead innocent people.
Prohibition has, however, brought us no benefits.
If Rep. Fryslie or Rep. Koistinen can name one beneficial accomplishment
of drug prohibition laws and enforcement, the South Dakota Industrial
Hemp Council will contribute $1000 to his next primary campaign.
Just one. You'd think there'd be one, wouldn't you?
If neither Koistinen nor Fryslie can name a benefit to drug prohibition,
then the Council shall donate $1000 to a primary election opponent
to either (maybe both), an opponent who will advocate for the
most versatile and useful crop in creation.
For information, contact:
South Dakota Industrial Hemp Council
HC 89 Box 184-A
Hermosa SD 57744
Prison industry convention gets heated
reception in Philadelphia
"The people who profit from prisons have names and addresses.
Last August, that address was in Philadelphia," say organizers
of the Coalition Against the American Corrections Association
(CA-ACA). The American Corrections Association (ACA), the trade
group for the prison-industrial complex, held its annual convention
in Philadelphia in August, and the CA-ACA was there to put it
CA-ACA, a broad coalition of community-based prison reform groups,
brought hundreds of people to Philadelphia for a series of workshops
and demonstrations designed to coincide with and act as a counter
to the ACA's weeklong industry trade show. At a weekend "counter
convention," members of ACT-UP, Mothers Against Police Terror,
Youth United for Change, Abolitionists United Against the Death
Penalty, November Coalition members, and other groups, dissected
the prison industry's profit motive. Participants also examined
the known racial bias in sentencing, the impact of the drug war
on imprisonment, and the everyday brutality of existence behind
bars in the United States of America.
Hundreds of activists marched from the Center Philadelphia police
station after a news conference where protesters' grievances
were aired and a new study by the Justice Policy Institute on
racial disparity in Pennsylvania was highlighted. According to
"The Color of Keystone: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the
Use of Incarceration in Pennsylvania," the State had the
greatest disparity between white and non-white incarceration
rates of any state prison system. Non-whites were imprisoned
at a rate 13 times higher than whites and made up 70% of all
new Pennsylvania prisoners in the last 20 years. While the number
of prisoners in Pennsylvania quadrupled over the last 20 years,
the number of drug offenders grew 16-fold. Blacks entered prison
on drug charges at a rate 33 times that of whites, the study
The Justice Policy Institute report made explicit the many, intimate
connections between repressive drug policy and the prison boom.
For additional online information about the JPI study go to www.cjcj.org/jpi/keystone.html.
Voters defeat plans for private prison
According to the Anchorage Daily News of October 3, 2001,
Kenai Peninsula voters have overwhelmingly rejected their borough
government's effort to build Alaska's first private prison. "An
increasingly bitter campaign ended at the ballot box in a resounding
defeat on Election Day for prison advocates. With all precincts
reporting, voters around the Peninsula turned down the idea by
a 3-to-1 margin," wrote Tom Kizzia for the Daily News.
Voter turnout was so heavy in the central Peninsula that several
precincts ran out of ballots and had to use samples. Some key
political supporters of the Kenai project say they're ready to
throw in the towel. "There's no will to go forward at this
point, not as bloody as this particular race has been,"
according to Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Bill Popp
of Kenai quoted in the News feature.
Even though Cornell Prisons, a private company, hopes to continue
working with Alaska and the Kenai borough, the vote bars the
Kenai Peninsula Borough from developing the prison for two years.
Local activists are convinced Cornell should give it up. "I'm
sure they've spent $200,000 by now trying to convince people
it's a wonderful idea. The people didn't buy their propaganda,"
said James Price, chairman of Peninsula Citizens Against Private
Prisons, in Kizzia's article.
Cornell and supporters of the prison launched an expensive, high
profile campaign emphasizing jobs and community development after
the Legislature approved funding last May. Some opponents objected
philosophically to privatizing prisons. Others challenged the
safety of private prisons and the project's fast political track.
They said it should have gone out to competitive bids.
Opponents got a boost in September from public employee unions
that began running ads and erecting billboards. Supporters counterattacked
and accused prison opponents of stirring up unfounded public
safety fears. With a week to go before the election, more than
$200,000 had been committed to the campaign, with supporters
outspending opponents three to one.
The Kenai prison measure, pushed by the Borough Assembly, sailed
through the Legislature, based partly on promises from Kenai
Natives Association, a partner in the deal, to provide "culturally
relevant" rehabilitation services to Native inmates. Natives
make up more than one-third of the state's prisoners, and some
300 have been housed in Arizona.
Since 1996, legislators have been pushing a private prison as
a way to bring home as many as 800 Alaska prisoners. The Legislature
earlier dismissed an administration plan to provide the beds
by expanding regional state prisons, saying a central private
facility would be cheaper.
It is not clear that Alaska Legislators will now try to reform
their criminal justice system in order to address overcrowding,
transferring prisoners to other states, and excessive reliance
on prison as first choice of punishment for criminal convictions,
but Alaskans could start demanding that they do.