No other sitting Commander in Chief, including Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981 when prison populations spiked upward rapidly, or George W. Bush, the hang-’em-high leader who presided over 152 executions as Texas governor, had ever set foot inside a federal penitentiary. But last month, President Barack Obama stepped behind bars — hinting that he’s conscious of the legacy he’ll leave and is eyeing criminal justice reform as his next issue to tackle.
“When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made,” Obama said after speaking to six nonviolent offenders at El Reno prison, about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City. “The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.” He added, “It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes.”
As bipartisan momentum grows in Washington, D.C., reform efforts are also sweeping the nation, many led by conservative governors. Here’s the latest innovations to come out of our country’s statehouses:
Everything’s bigger in Texas, including its correctional facilities. That is, until recently. Starting in 2007, Gov. Rick Perry, Bush’s successor in a “tough on crime” state and now a Republican presidential candidate, led the conservative state in reining in the size of its prison populations. Texas focused on expanding treatment programs and diverting offenders through probation and parole. In 2011, three juvenile facilities were closed, halving the number of incarcerated youth in the state. Cuts continued in 2013, when legislators reduced the corrections budget by $97 million, a clear sign they intended to scale back the system’s capacity. Two prisons near Dallas mired in scandal and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest for-profit prison company, looked to be on the chopping block. When Sen. John Whitimire, the longest-serving legislator, called for the closure of the prisons built during his watch, the decision seemed final. Through the budget process, both were defunded.
Obama didn’t selected El Reno prison for his visit at random. He picked the institution because half of its inmates are behind bars for drug offenses — the same proportion for the country as a whole. Utah faced the same situation. While crime fell for two decades, the state’s prison population increased without bound: From 2004 to 2013, the number of inmates grew by 18 percent, six times faster than the national average. This March, Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed a comprehensive reform package (developed by a commission of state and local officials) that reclassified all first- and second-time drug possession violations as misdemeanors, instead of felonies. Along with creating new guidelines for parole violations and adding “re-entry specialists” to smooth the transition from prison, the Beehive State’s new law is expected to eliminate the 2,700 projected incarcerations and save the public $500 million over the next 20 years.
Alabama has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, jailing more than 30,000 people in a system designed to hold only 12,000 prisoners — leading officials to call it a “time bomb waiting to explode.” Almost a quarter of newly admitted inmates were thrown into overcrowded cells because they violated the terms of their parole or probation. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, half of those cases were for “minor technical violations,” such as missed appointments, unpaid fines, moving to a new home without permission or losing a job, “that did not result in a new offense.” A law signed in 2010 by Gov. Robert Riley limited incarceration for those who committed an administrative error but didn’t break any laws. The alternatives saved the southern state an estimated $18 million.
The signs are so commonplace you might not notice them: “Drug-Free School Zones.” In fine print, they’ll inform you that selling drugs within 1,000 feet of school property, a public park, a housing project or a youth center in Indiana is a Class A felony, automatically upping the recommended sentence to 20 to 50 years in prison. The creation of these areas were one of the government’s first salvos in the War on Drugs, passed by Congress in 1970, more than a decade before Ronald Reagan escalated the battle. Indiana’s reform began in 2007 in an unlikely way: bills in each chamber of the legislature initially set out to expand the drug-free zone to include bus stops and churches. Kelsey Kauffman, a professor at DePauw University, tasked her students with evaluating the law’s effectiveness. Over an eight-year campaign, they presented their findings — that more than 75 percent of the defendants affected by the zones were black — to multiple Senate committees. By 2013, new legislation cut the zones in half, limiting them to a 500-foot radius. A bill last year sought to scale them back even further to 250 feet, but political maneuvering killed the attempt.
Smack in the middle of America’s heartland, the Cornhusker State became the first conservative state in four decades to repeal capital punishment this May. Nebraska’s nonpartisan, unicameral legislature defied Gov. Pete Ricketts, a fierce advocate for the death penalty, with a 30-to-19 vote, just barely enough to overturn a veto. Liberals and conservatives alike believed the death penalty was inefficient, costly and immoral. “Today we are doing something that transcends me, that transcends this Legislature, that transcends this state,” Sen. Ernie Chambers, an independent from Omaha, said before the vote. “We are talking about human dignity.” Along with Washington, D.C., Nebraska joined 17 other states in banning capital punishment.
The federal welfare overhaul in 1996, passed by Rep. Newt Gingrich’s Republican stronghold in Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, revoked the ability of felons convicted of drug offenses to receive welfare benefits. The lifetime disqualification from food stamps seemed so vengeful and contrary to public safety that 19 states have chosen to opt out of the provision entirely and 24 states created exceptions, according to a tally by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline blog. Barring someone from benefits “increases the odds they will commit new crimes by virtue of the fact that you’re creating a significant financial obstacle,” says Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project. A grassroots push, particularly by religious leaders in St. Louis and Kansas City, united lawmakers in values-based support and won the governor’s signature.
Once a person’s made contact with the criminal justice system, it’s hard to allude its grasp. A criminal record follows you into every job interview. It’s a red flag on every background check for a new apartment or a loan. That’s the case — even if a person isn’t a felon who spent years in the pen or if a judge dismisses the case or a jury agrees the accused is innocent. With prodding from the Georgia Justice Project and others, legislators overhauled the state’s burdensome and limited expungement law. On the day the law went into effect, one-third of Georgia’s population had a record expunged. Bolstered by the success, Georgia Justice Project convinced Gov. Nathan Deal to issue an executive order to “ban the box” asking criminal history questions on state employment applications this February — the first state in the Deep South to change its hiring policy.