State Roundup

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 parole.

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 their budgets.

"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 burglary.

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

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 Strikes" laws.

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:

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 public letter.

Dear editor:
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:

Bob Newland
South Dakota Industrial Hemp Council
HC 89 Box 184-A
Hermosa SD 57744
Phone: 605-255-4032

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 on notice.

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 reported.

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

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.