May 19, 2017: NEW YORK TIMES - States Trim Penalties and Prison Rolls, Even as Sessions Gets Tough
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By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate. But this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards struck a deal to reduce sentences and the prison population, saving millions annually.
If lawmakers approve the changes, Louisiana will be following more than 30 states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, that have already limited sentences; expanded alternatives to incarceration, such as drug treatment; or otherwise reduced the reach and cost of the criminal justice system. Many of those states say they have saved money while crime rates have stayed low.
In Washington, though, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has charted the opposite course. He announced last week that federal prosecutors should aim to put more people in prison for longer periods, adopting the sort of mass-incarceration strategy that helped flood prisons during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.
His move — which he said would promote consistency and respect for the law — alarmed critics who feared that the Trump administration was embracing failed, even racist, policies.
Even more, Mr. Sessions’s approach conflicted with one of the few major points of bipartisan national agreement over the past decade: that criminal justice could be more effective by becoming less punitive to low-level offenders; treating root causes of crime, like drug addiction; and reserving more resources to go after serious, violent criminals.
But if Mr. Sessions’s appointment has dampened the hopes of those wishing for congressional action to reduce incarceration, advocates say it has had little effect on state efforts.
“There was a lot of speculation that with the rhetoric from the presidential campaign, there would be a drop in momentum, but we haven’t seen that,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a group at the fore of conservative efforts to reduce incarceration rates.
“There have been so many successes in the last several years, particularly in conservative states, that it continues to fuel other states to act,” Mr. Levin said.
The consensus began with a cold, objective judgment that taxpayers were not getting a good return on investment for money spent on prisons. Bloated corrections budgets took money that could be spent on schools, roads or tax breaks, while many of those who went through the prison system went on to offend again.
Among Republicans and Democrats alike, concern also grew that too many nonviolent criminals who were no threat were being imprisoned and given little chance to reform and re-enter mainstream society.
Recently, legislators in a few places, such as Florida and West Virginia, have gone against the tide, pushing for tougher sentencing related to the epidemic of painkiller addiction haunting many communities. But Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said: “That’s the only fly in the ointment. It’s a bit of a throwback.”
It has not hurt that early adopters included tough-on-crime red states like Texas, which began passing major criminal justice revisions in 2003. “It was a Nixon-goes-to-China thing and was really helpful in letting other states know, ‘The water is warm; you can do this,’” Mr. Ring said.
In contrast, he added, Mr. Sessions’s directive flies in the face of state-level successes. “We’re going to double down on an approach everybody else has walked away from,” is how Mr. Ring characterized it.
So far this year, Michigan and Georgia, which previously rewrote their criminal justice laws, have already approved new rounds of changes.
In Oklahoma, where President Trump handily carried every county in November, another vote was also popular: Residents approved, by a 16 percentage point margin, a ballot proposal calling on legislators to shrink prison rolls and downgrade numerous drug and property crimes to misdemeanors from felonies.
“Basically, in Oklahoma, we’re just warehousing people in prison, and we’re not trying to rehabilitate anybody because of budget constraints,” said Bobby Cleveland, a Republican state representative who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Oklahoma has the nation’s No. 2 incarceration rate.
The state is now considering how to heed the voters’ advice, including debating major criminal justice changes. The effort faces opposition from district attorneys who have slowed some pieces of legislation, but the proposals have the firm backing of Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican.
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 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 Mr. 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 that he considered the issue a priority.
So far, state-level criminal justice overhauls have helped reverse what had been an inexorable rise in the 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 they now stand at 52,000, saving at least $264 million, aides to Mr. Deal said.
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 in 2016 from 13,369 in 2009.
“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, supporters of 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.”
Rebecca R. Ruiz and Timothy Williams contributed reporting.