America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This rate has been climbing since the 1970s, even though crime overall has declined. Mandatory minimums, excessive sentencing, and overcriminalization are big reasons why so many Americans are behind bars.
But mass incarceration is just one part of the problem. Our justice system does not prepare individuals in prison to succeed when they rejoin their communities. People with a criminal history face significant barriers to getting a job, renting an apartment, and even obtaining a driver’s license. These barriers are so great that many get stuck in a cycle of imprisonment. In fact, after offenders are released from prison, they face so many barriers that more than 80 percent end up going back to jail. And then there’s the cost to taxpayers. We spend billions each year on this failed system.
America’s criminal justice system is broken, but change is unlikely to come from Washington, DC. Instead, the real opportunities to fix the system are in the states.
During the 2021 legislative sessions, state lawmakers across the country worked to improve their justice system, enhance public safety, and give people in prison the tools to succeed when they rejoin society. Many state legislatures leaned on a network of policy organizations working to break down barriers for the people of their state, including people in prison.
In particular, Empower Mississippi, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Libertas Institute, and Badger Institute were leaders in advancing policy recommendations that many states can learn from—ways to make prisons safer, reduce the prison population, save money for taxpayers, and remove barriers that prevent former inmates from becoming productive members of society after release.
Since 2018, Empower Mississippi has focused on fixing a broken criminal justice system in their state. Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the country. Despite spending more than $3 billion in corrections over the last decade, the Magnolia State’s prison system has been plagued with scandal and dozens of inmate deaths—leading to a Department of Justice investigation.
Empower wanted to safely reduce the prison population by providing an incentive for individuals in prison to commit to rehabilitation and allow those who had earned it a second chance. To bring this solution to life, Empower Mississippi launched the “Second Chances” campaign. Through op-eds, radio and television interviews, message testing, and more than 30 blog posts, Empower made the case for reform. Empower organized a coalition of stakeholders across the state, including key sheriffs and prosecutors. Empower also coordinated legislative hearings on Mississippi’s prison system and participated in conference negotiations in the Mississippi Legislature.
Thanks to these efforts, the Mississippi Governor signed the Earned Parole Eligibility Act—legislation that will reduce Mississippi’s prison population, make prisons safe by providing hope and incentive, and cut down on the added taxpayer burden. Mississippi also passed the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which will guarantee a certain level of care for pregnant women who are incarcerated, and a new requirement to issue driver’s licenses to ex-offenders leaving prison.
In 2007, the Texas Public Policy Foundation launched a campaign focusing on criminal justice reform called “Right on Crime.” The goal of the initiative is to reduce crime, restore victims, help offenders turn their life around, and lower taxpayer costs. During the 2021 legislative session, TPPF encouraged lawmakers to adopt criminal justice reforms, and saw some success.
Texas passed a bill that reinstates a driver’s license to Texans exiting the criminal justice system conditioned on certain criteria. As the Texas Public Policy Foundation noted, this measure gives individuals an essential tool for finding and maintaining a job.
The Texas Governor signed legislation that will help reduce in–court costs and fines that often follow the formerly incarcerated—removing a significant barrier to successful reentry for former inmates. When people are released from prison, sometimes they realize they have accumulated thousands of dollars’ worth of fees for previous misdemeanors. This legislation would allow an individual’s time in jail to serve as a credit to erase these fines and fees. The Texas Public Policy Foundation applauded the governor for supporting reentry reform and noted this legislation is a great example of Texas can empower individuals reentering their communities to achieve the independence and self-sufficiency they desire.
Criminal justice reform has been a top issue for Utah’s Libertas Institute for many years. The Institute notes they are committed to creating better outcomes for public safety and individual success, and they saw progress in 2021 when the Utah Legislature passed several Libertas-supported policy ideas.
First, Utah passed a law that will help more than 10,000 Utahns every year by ensuring they can continue to legally drive, even if they are unable to make a court payment for a past run-in with the law. The ability to drive is an essential part of life. Americans use their cars to get groceries, pick up their kids from school, and go to work. This legislation allows people who’ve committed a crime but can’t afford to pay for court fines to continue driving. The Libertas Institute worked alongside many other stakeholders and advocates to ensure the successful passage of this bill. Libertas noted this bipartisan effort to fix an overlooked problem in the system will positively impact thousands of Utahns. Utah residents will no longer have to worry about losing their license if they can’t afford to pay court fees. They can continue to drive, get to work, and eventually pay off those fees.
Second, Utah passed a law that stops the state from releasing booking photos until the individual has been convicted of the crime they were charged with. Because of this bill, individuals’ mugshots will be kept private, ensuring their reputations aren’t forever tarnished before a guilty plea or finding is ever met, despite their presumed innocence.
Finally, the Utah Legislature passed a concurrent resolution to affirm the Legislature’s support for restorative criminal justice reform. The resolution highlights the problems with Utah’s criminal justice system and notes the need for reform. Although the bill is nonbinding, Libertas stressed the dire need for reform in Utah and supported this resolution.
The Wisconsin Legislature passed legislation that would make smart, meaningful, commonsense reforms to Wisconsin’s expungement law. Expungement is a sealing of a record for low-level offenses. For many Americans, low-level offenses on their record make it difficult to rent an apartment or get a job. The Badger Institute explained the legislation would allow judges to grant an expungement after a sentence is served rather than at the time of sentencing. This adjustment would give judges more information and would incentivize good behavior among individuals convicted of a crime.
In addition, the Wisconsin Governor signed three important police reform bills supported by Badger Institute research. Badger noted these measures will increase accountability and trust between police departments and the communities they serve by requiring better collection and reporting on use-of-force incidents, publication of use-of-force policies, and the sharing of employment files when an officer applies to a new department. Badger policy analyst Julie Grace added: “Police play a critical role in maintaining safe communities. These evenhanded reforms will allow them to do their jobs while increasing public confidence in their practices.”
The Badger Institute is continuing to push for needed reforms to Wisconsin’s broken criminal justice system. In February 2021, Badger, along with other policy groups, released a roadmap for common sense criminal justice reforms, “Criminal Justice Reform Recommendations for Wisconsin Policymakers: 2021 Edition.”