A quiet revolution in the US and what it means for prisons

by Dan Stockman

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There's been a sort of quiet revolution spreading across the country. It's one that has been badly needed for decades and one that I honestly thought would never happen.

It's called criminal justice reform, and according to a new Vera Institute of Justice report, nearly every state in the union has enacted some version of it in the last two years.

"Forty-six states made at least 201 changes to their sentencing and corrections laws, an increase in pace since Vera's last comprehensive analysis in 2013," the group said in a statement announcing the report.

I never thought this would happen because politicians often are so focused on being "tough on crime" and "locking up criminals." The futility of mass incarceration and the impact on minorities and the poor usually take a back seat to political considerations.

What I forgot, however, is the power of money.

In many states, those behind the changes cite mass incarceration's ineffectiveness at improving public safety, but the real motivator is the incredible cost. For decades, politicians have been willing to throw any amount of money at prisons to continue looking tough on crime, but this — combined with the desire to cut taxes — has simply become unsustainable.

The move has not gotten much attention, either. These are sweeping, dramatic changes in state policy. In Indiana, for example, the entire code of criminal law was rewritten. The reaction from the public seemed to be a collective yawn. Maybe it's because politicians have purposely kept it low-key, or maybe it's because people don't care.

Still, whatever the reasons and whatever the reactions, the changes are happening.

"With more than 86 percent of people incarcerated in the United States held in state prisons, these reforms are a significant sign of progress," the Vera Institute said.

Now, attention is turning to reform on the federal level, which has been stalled since 2010, when disparities in sentencing for crack versus powdered cocaine were finally addressed.

So what kinds of changes are being made? The Vera Institute said:

Most of the 201 changes enacted focused on three stages of the criminal justice system: creating or expanding opportunities to divert people away from entering the system; reducing prison populations by making certain offenses eligible for community-based sentences, reducing the length and severity of custodial sentences, adding early release options, and reducing the number of people re-admitted for violating probation or parole; and supporting reentry into the community for those leaving prison.

Other changes include limiting the use of jail time to punish people for not paying fines and fees. Many activists have pointed out in recent years that this often amounts to debtors' prison, where the poor are locked up for being poor while the wealthy walk free.

You can read the entire report on the Vera Institute for Justice's website.

Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at dstockman@ncronline.org.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]