News & Politics

States Trim Penalties and Prison Rolls, Even as Sessions Gets Tough

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Supporters acknowledge that it may take a few tries to succeed. “Texas didn’t do it in one year, either,” Representative Cleveland said.

Louisiana is also moving toward change. On Tuesday, Governor Edwards, a Democrat who has made reducing the prison population a centerpiece of his administration, announced that he had reached an agreement with the state’s politically powerful district attorneys to revise criminal justice laws.

The deal, which still faces a vote in the Legislature, would reduce penalties for minor drug possession, give judges more power to sentence people to probation instead of prison, limit how many theft crimes qualify as felonies, and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of crimes.

Last year, it also seemed there was a fair chance that even Congress would get in on the action with a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. The bill never got a vote on the floor, and some feared that the appointment of Mr. Sessions, who opposed the legislation as a senator, was a sign that President Trump would never support it.

But in March, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with pro-reform senators, including Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, signaling he considered the issue a priority.

So far, state-level criminal justice overhauls have helped reverse what had been an inexorable rise in the total United States prison population: After peaking in 2009, total state prison rolls had fallen about 5 percent by 2015, to 1.48 million, according to the Sentencing Project.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican former prosecutor, has emerged as a national leader in the prison reform movement. After taking office in 2011, he backed several rounds of legislation that reduced punishments for low-risk defendants and slashed juvenile incarceration rolls, among other measures.

Before the changes, Georgia prison rolls were projected to top 60,000 by last year, but now stand at 52,000, saving at least $264 million, aides to Mr. Deal say.

In 2015, the state sent the fewest people to prison in a dozen years. And much of that was a steep reduction in the incarceration of black men: The number of African-Americans committed to Georgia prisons fell to 10,005 from 13,369 between 2009 and 2016.

“When we discuss the statutes, statistics and successes, we are ultimately considering the reclaiming of lives, the overcoming of past mistakes and the repairing of families and relationships in Georgia’s communities,” Mr. Deal said last week, as he signed the latest rewrite of criminal justice laws.

While Mr. Sessions has warned of what he says is a coming surge in crime, advocates for reducing incarceration say they are frustrated by how their goals are often cast as adverse to public safety.

“The states that have most significantly reduced their prison population have also seen the biggest drops in their crime and recidivism rates,” said Holly Harris, a former general counsel of the Kentucky Republican Party who is now executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. “Reform makes us safer,” Ms. Harris said. “There’s a misperception with prosecutors that somehow reform is anti-law enforcement, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.” Source: nytimes

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