Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.
Fighting Overincarceration in the States
The ACLU continues to work to reduce prison populations and improve public safety at the state level. Here are some highlights from March:
• California: The ACLU released a report analyzing implementation of last year’s Realignment Plan, finding that too many counties are increasing jail capacity instead of looking for alternatives to incarceration.
• Florida: The ACLU supported a recently passed bill to create a parole program for individuals who have served 50 percent of their prison sentence and completed reentry programs, a knock to the state’s truth-in-sentencing law.
• Georgia: We supported a reform bill that will send fewer people to prison for low-level offenses and expand drug and mental health courts, among other things. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.
• Hawaii: We submitted testimony to the Senate last month on a bill that would reform pretrial risk assessments and parole supervision.
• Maryland: The ACLU supported two bills that passed the Maryland legislature: one that grants good time credit to people on parole that will reduce prison populations and increase public safety, and one that codifies the right to an attorney at bail review, which cleared both houses and advanced to conference committee.
• Oklahoma: Ryan Kiesel, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s Executive Director, penned an op-ed in the Oklahoma Gazette explaining why a pending reform law falls short of expectations.
• Texas: Last month, the ACLU held community discussions on ending mass incarceration and sent out an action letter calling for local rehabilitation instead of prison time for lower crimes.
• West Virginia: In an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette, the ACLU of West Virginia’s Alyson Clements laments the legislature’s failure to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform.
Federal Criminal Justice Reform
The ACLU fights for a more fair and effective criminal justice system at the federal level, too. Here are some highlights from March:
• U.S. Sentencing Commission: The ACLU submitted comments supporting fairer treatment for drug crimes and immigration offenses.
• Prosecutorial Misconduct: The ACLU supports the Fairness in Disclosure of Evidence Act. The bill clarifies what evidence federal prosecutors must disclose and addresses remedies for Brady violations. Laura Murphy and Jesselyn McCurdy of our Washington Legislative Office submitted a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee supporting the bill, and the WLO’s Michael Macleod-Ball participated in a press conference held by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on the bill.
Criminal Justice in the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court handed down several important criminal justice decisions in March, including:
• Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye: The Supreme Court ruled that defendants have a right to effective counsel during plea bargaining, and that violations cannot be cured by a later fair trial or plea. The ACLU joined an amicus brief submitted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
• Florence v. Burlington: The ACLU filed an amicus brief on behalf of former New Jersey attorneys general who opposed blanket strip search policies. Inimai Chettiar writes for the American Constitution Society about the decision and its link to overincarceration.
Trayvon Martin and Racial Profiling Reform
The ACLU has called for an unbiased, professional and thorough outside investigation of Trayvon Martin’s death and asked lawmakers to take steps to end racial profiling:
• Joyce Hamilton Henry of the ACLU of Florida spoke at a gathering at an AME church in Sanford and at a large rally with Trayvon’s family.
• ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon wrote an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times.
• Racial Justice Project Director Dennis Parker testified at a forum hosted by U.S. House Democrats. He called for an unbiased outside investigation, passage of the End Racial Profiling Act, and for the administration to strengthen the U.S. Department of Justice guidance on profiling.
• Take action! Call on Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to guarantee a meaningful investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
The ACLU’s fight against overincarceration is also a fight against its pernicious effects, including massive expansion of the use of solitary confinement:
• National Prison Project Director David Fathi testified in favor of closing Tamms Correctional Center before an Illinois Commission. Listen to a podcast with Brian Nelson, who spent 23 years in solitary confinement.
• David also discusses the use of solitary confinement in California in this front page NYT article and in Virginia in this front page Washington Post article.
• The New York Times ran a front page story and the Open Society Foundation ran a blog post by the ACLU National Prison Project’s Margaret Winter about our litigation to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Mississippi and its link to overincarceration.
• The ACLU’s Amy Fettig condemned the use of solitary confinement in the United States in her testimony to the U.N. Human Rights Council.