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Know the West

Recent criminal justice reforms by state

California has led the way for other states to reduce prison populations.


Beginning in 2012, California shed tens of thousands of inmates from its state prison facilities, which had grown so bloated over the years that prisoners often slept on makeshift triple-bunks set up in gymnasiums and prison day rooms. The suicide rate was 80 percent higher than the nationwide average for inmates and a lack of even the most basic medical and mental health care led to roughly one unnecessary death per week.

California’s prisoner reductions came from a court order to cut prison populations after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that conditions inside the state’s prisons — which were 200 percent over capacity — violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

A California prison. In 2012, the state charged ahead with an ambitious prison downsizing initiative. But many of the inmates ended up in county jails instead.
Ryan Stavely/Flickr

Since then, California has led Western states in efforts to tackle an issue that politicians on both sides of the aisle refer to as our “mass incarceration problem.”

In Washington, D.C., criminal justice reform has won rare bipartisan support after a bill proposed late last year sought to roll back the “tough on crime” policies that have fueled unprecedented growth in the U.S. prison system since the early 1980s. But the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would do remarkably little to lessen the number of people behind bars. The bill affects only the federal system, and federal inmates represent just 13 percent of the U.S. prison population. Counting jail populations, federal prisoners are just 9 percent of all Americans behind bars. (Jails are the county or municipality-run ways stations through which nearly all people who are arrested pass until their cases are resolved, often because they are too poor to post bail or fail to comply with the conditions of their pre-trial release). Most of the nation’s 2.2 million inmates are housed in state prisons and jails, leaving state lawmakers with the real keys to reducing the country’s incarceration rate, currently the highest in the world.

From Alaska to Utah, Western states are taking a hard look at the way people are charged, how much time they serve, and what happens when they’re released. Here are the region’s recent major developments in criminal justice reform:

California: Following the 2012 prison "realignment" policy. In 2014, voters approved Prop 47, which reduced some felonies, such as nonviolent property theft and drug crimes, to misdemeanors. Not only did the state decrease the number of people going to prison, but thousands of inmates were eligible to be released early under the new law. As of September 2015, nearly 4,500 have been released under Prop. 47. And the state’s Department of Corrections estimates 3,300 fewer people will be incarcerated each year.

Utah: Utah has led red states in aggressive criminal justice reform. Last year, lawmakers passed a measure aimed at reducing the number of offenders who return to prison for minor parole and probation violations. Another bill narrowed the scope of drug-free zone policies that impose lengthy prison terms for drug offenses and reclassified certain felony offenses to misdemeanors (which carry less or no jail time).

Montana: A bill passed last year established a commission to examine various issues related to the state’s prison system including the impact of current sentencing policies, how to reduce prison populations, and how to address racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. Whites are underrepresented in the state’s prison system, while minorities are overrepresented.

Alaska: Thanks in part to falling oil revenues, Alaska's lawmakers have started scrutinizing their state’s bloated prison system in an effort to save money. In December, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission delivered a set of policy recommendations, which included limiting prison beds to serious and violent offenders, reclassifying many of the lowest level misdemeanors as violations punishable by a fine rather than jail time, and shortening jail time for more serious misdemeanors to no more than 30 days. The panel also called for changing simple possession of heroin, meth and cocaine to a misdemeanor. If adopted, the recommendations would not only avoid a projected 27 percent increase in the state’s prison population but would also reduce it by 21 percent over the next 10 years — and save the state an estimated $424 million.

Wyoming: A House bill passed in 2015 requires the state’s Department of Correction to automatically allow individuals with first-time, non-violent felony convictions who complete their sentence to vote.

Oregon: In 2015, Oregon lawmakers passed a measure that prohibits employers from including questions about criminal history on job applications. However, employers may require applicants to disclose convictions or conduct a criminal background check later in the hiring process.

Nevada: Last year, Nevada abolished life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles, except in the case of multiple homicide convictions. The decision comes in response to a 2012 Supreme Court decision banning mandatory life imprisonment sentences for youth.

Overall, the changes are encouraging, justice reform advocates say, but efforts to curtail prison populations tell only part of the story. While lawmakers are scrambling to lessen the number of people housed in state prisons, their efforts sometimes result in growing jail populations. In Arizona, for instance, county jails are now competing with private prisons to house spillover inmates from the state’s overcrowded prisons.

And in California, many of the offenders who were released to ease the burden on the state prison system were simply re-directed into local jails.

“It’s sort of a perverse outcome,” says Rebecca Thorpe, a political science professor at the University of Washington who studies mass incarceration, noting that jails lack the resources to provide things like drug treatment programs and mental health services — services that would help end the cycle of incarceration in the first place. 

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN. 

Note: This article has been updated to reflect that prison populations were reduced, but prisoners were not released before the end of their sentence.