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The State of Sentencing 2008
Developments in Policy and Practice
Ryan S. King
February 2009

For further information:
The Sentencing Project
514 Tenth St. NW
Suite 1000
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 628-0871

This report was written by Ryan S. King, Policy Analyst, of The
Sentencing Project, with research assistance from Laura Brinkman
and Sarah Schirmer.
The Sentencing Project is a national non-profit organization engaged
in research and advocacy on criminal justice policy issues.
The Sentencing Project is supported by the generosity of individual
contributors and the following foundations:

www.sentencingproject.org

Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
Ford Foundation
Bernard F. and Alva B. Gimbel Foundation
Herb Block Foundation
JK Irwin Foundation
Ralph E. Ogden Foundation
Open Society Institute
Public Welfare Foundation
Anonymous Donor at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
Elizabeth B. and Arthur E. Roswell Foundation
Sandler Family Foundation
The Starfish Group
Restorative Justice Program, General Board of Global Ministries,
United Methodist Church
Wallace Global Fund
Copyright © 2009 by The Sentencing Project. Reproduction of this
document in full or part in print or electronic format only by permission of
The Sentencing Project.

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

OVERVIEW
For the better part of a decade, a common refrain heard in the halls of state
legislatures is that there is a pressing need to address the growing prison population
and the corresponding weight it places upon state budgets. The politics and the
realities of incarcerating 2.3 million people and supervising an additional five million
Americans on probation and parole have demanded a shift in thinking regarding the
best strategies to maximize public safety while preserving justice and fairness. Since
2000, most states have taken some action to address the expanding prison
population. These reforms have commonly included alternative sentencing
provisions, establishing and expanding drug courts, amending parole eligibility
requirements, and reforming parole and probation revocation procedures.
The legislative and policy reforms in 2008 were no exception, with 17 states enacting
changes in the areas of sentencing, drug policy, parole revocation, and racial justice.
However, the budget crisis faced by most states, coupled with looming deficits in
subsequent fiscal years, have increased the urgency of grappling with these challenges.
Nationally, 31 states reported a total budget gap of nearly $30 billion in December
2008, a figure that is likely to grow as states struggle with their fiscal year 2010
budgets. 1 Since 1990, state corrections expenditures have grown by an average of
7.5% per year. 2 Thus, corrections represent a substantial contributor to the budget
problems faced in many states.

1

National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers, The Fiscal Survey

of the States, December 2008, p. 1.
2

National Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report, Fiscal Year 2007, December

2008, p. 2.

2

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

This report highlights a number of key state-level criminal justice policy
developments that occurred during 2008. 3
STATE
Arizona
Arkansas

REFORM
Established probation revocation and crime reduction performance incentive system
Initiative declared marijuana enforcement lowest law enforcement priority
(Fayetteville)

Colorado

Amended criminal code to permit certain juveniles charged with murder to be
adjudicated in the Youthful Offender System

Connecticut

Authorized racial and ethnic impact statement to be prepared in conjunction with
certain criminal justice legislation

Hawaii

Initiative declared marijuana enforcement lowest law enforcement priority (Hawaii
County)

Illinois
Iowa

Created Commission to Study Disproportionate Justice Impact
Authorized racial and ethnic impact statement to be prepared in conjunction with
certain criminal justice legislation

Kentucky

Amended parole release policies and expanded home incarceration for persons
convicted of certain offenses; created committee to study Kentucky Penal Code and
make recommendations for reform; rescinded certain requirements for persons
seeking to have voting rights restored after the completion of sentence

Louisiana

Expanded dismissal of prosecution to persons who have completed a drug court
diversion program

Massachusetts

Initiative declared marijuana enforcement lowest law enforcement priority (Statewide)

Mississippi

Amended parole release policies; expanded eligibility for compassionate release

New Jersey

Expanded drug court eligibility and permitted early termination of probation
supervision for persons making exemplary progress

Pennsylvania

Created Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive sentence to provide for accelerated
release for eligible individuals upon completion of certain programs

South Carolina
Utah

Established the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission
Appropriated state funds for the provision of postsecondary education for persons in
prison

Vermont

Expanded substance abuse programming for persons in prison and under community
supervision and permitted a court to reduce probation sentence for persons making
progress under supervision

Wisconsin

Established a coordinated strategy for the collection and analysis of criminal justice
data for the purposes of identifying unwarranted racial disparities and created a
Racial Disparities Oversight Commission

3

This report is not intended to be an exhaustive collection of state criminal justice legislation and

policy reforms implemented during 2008. Rather, it is meant to highlight selected legislative and
policy developments that address critical challenges in the field of criminal justice.

3

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

While the trend of states considering criminal justice reforms in light of fiscal
pressures continues, the broader story of sentencing policy remains a mixed picture.
The reforms highlighted in this document are promising, but they fail to address
some of the most significant engines of growth in the correctional system. The
increase in the incarcerated population is a result of more people facing prison for a
broader range of offenses and staying there longer than at any point in history. And
many of the policy decisions that resulted in this growth – mandatory minimum
sentencing, “truth-in-sentencing,” extremely long sentences, and life without parole –
remain statutory law. This is not meant to discount the reform efforts of
policymakers across the country, but the reality is that many of the problematic
policies that have created the current situation remain law and any efforts to divert
low-level drug defendants or reduce parole revocations are likely to be dwarfed by
many of the provisions mentioned above. Thus, any sustainable reduction in the
correctional population will need to build upon the momentum of reforms covered
in this report and past editions and seek to expand rational, evidence-based policies
that achieve fairness and justice while protecting public safety.

4

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

PROBATION AND PAROLE POLICY
Arizona
The Arizona Legislature established a probation revocation and crime reduction
performance incentive system with the passage of SB 1476. Up to 40% of any cost
savings in each county resulting from a reduction in probation revocations for either
technical violations or new offenses will be appropriated to the Adult Probation
Services fund of the county. The money is intended to supplement, not supplant,
other funding and will be targeted to substance abuse treatment, community
supervision services, and victim services.
Kentucky
The Kentucky budget included a change to the state’s rules regarding eligibility for
home incarceration and the calculation of time on parole supervision. The state
budget, HB 406, includes a provision permitting certain persons convicted of a nonviolent offense and within 180 days of release to serve the balance of their sentence
under home incarceration. The bill also permits persons who had their parole
supervision revoked due to a technical violation to have time reduced from their total
sentence for the period they had already served on parole supervision. Additionally,
persons who complete drug treatment or education programs are eligible to receive
an earned discharge credit of 90 days.
Mississippi
The Mississippi Legislature amended the state’s parole policies with the passage of
SB 2136. Persons convicted of a nonviolent offense after June 30, 1995 will be
eligible for parole after serving a portion of their sentence. This removes these
offense types from consideration under the “truth-in-sentencing” law, passed in
1994, that requires individuals to serve 85% of their sentence prior to applying for
release on parole. The reform results in an estimated 7,000 persons convicted of
nonviolent offenses becoming eligible for earlier parole consideration.

5

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

Mississippi
With the passage of HB 494, persons in prison for a nonviolent offense who are
terminally ill are now eligible for release regardless of the time served on their
sentence.

6

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

DRUG POLICY
Arkansas
Voters in the city of Fayetteville joined Eureka Springs to become the second city in
Arkansas to pass an initiative declaring marijuana enforcement a lowest law
enforcement priority. Two-thirds of voters supported the initiative that makes the
investigation, citation, arrest, and prosecution of marijuana offenses the lowest law
enforcement and prosecutorial priority.
Hawaii
Voters in Hawaii County approved an ordinance making marijuana the lowest law
enforcement priority. The ballot initiative passed with 58% of the vote. The
ordinance calls upon law enforcement and prosecutors to neither arrest nor prosecute
adults for the personal use of marijuana, and requires that the county not accept any
funds earmarked for the enforcement of marijuana offenses.
Louisiana
Louisiana law permits the set-aside of a conviction and dismissal of prosecution by a
court for certain persons upon the successful completion of a probationary period.
The passage of HB 292 extends this protocol to persons who have completed a drug
court diversion program. This dismissal has the same impact as an acquittal,
although the court reserves the right to consider the dismissed prosecution for the
purposes of calculation of sentence as a multiple offender on any future criminal
actions.
Massachusetts
Voters in Massachusetts supported Question 2 by a 2-to-1 margin, choosing to
decriminalize the possession of marijuana in quantities of one ounce or less.
Possession of one ounce or less of marijuana will now result in a $100 fine and will
not be recorded on a Criminal Offender Record Information report.

7

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

New Jersey
Opportunities for drug court diversion were increased by the General Assembly in
2008. The passage of AB 1770 creates a special probation for certain persons
charged with a drug offense who would have otherwise not been eligible for
probation and would have faced the presumption of a mandatory minimum sentence
and/or incarceration. The bill also permits judges to end the term of special
probation early upon evidence of exemplary progress and to reduce fines in the case
of demonstrated financial hardship.
Vermont
The Vermont General Assembly passed comprehensive legislation intended to
address the role of substance abuse in contributing to the state’s growing prison
population. The bill, HB 859, authorizes an expansion of the state’s Intensive
Substance Abuse Program, more community-based substance abuse services for
people under supervision, and a study of the feasibility of expanding drug courts to
every county in the state. The bill also permits a court, at the request of the
Department of Corrections, to reduce the length of the sentence to probation for
persons who have been making successful progress, and limits the caseload of
probation officers.

8

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

RACIAL DISPARITY
Connecticut
Connecticut was one of two states that passed legislation in 2008 intended to provide
lawmakers with information regarding the racial and ethnic impact of certain
sentencing and corrections legislation prior to passage. HB 5933 calls for the
preparation of a racial and ethnic impact statement in response to legislation that has
the potential to increase or decrease the pretrial or sentenced population in state
prisons and jails. Members of a committee with jurisdiction over legislation that
could impact the correctional population can choose to request the preparation of a
racial and ethnic impact statement. If there is a majority in favor of preparing a
statement, the Office of Legislative Research has ten days to produce a document
that assesses the impact of the specific legislation on racial and ethnic minorities.
Iowa
With the passage of HF 2393, Iowa established a process to assess the potential
impact of legislation on racial and ethnic minorities. A minority impact statement
will be included in a broader correctional impact statement that is attached to any
legislation that changes the current criminal penalty structure or other sentencing or
public supervision procedures. In addition, grant applications to state agencies must
include a racial impact statement that assesses any potentially disproportionate
impact and, if identified, provides a rationale for the disparate impact and evidence
of consultation with representatives of the racial or ethnic group that is impacted.
Illinois
The state General Assembly passed SB 2476, which creates the Commission to Study
Disproportionate Justice Impact. The Commission will study the extent to which
the state’s criminal sentencing structure affects communities of color and offer
recommendations for legislative or policy reforms to address any identified areas of
disproportionate impact.

9

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

Wisconsin
In light of findings and recommendations by the Commission on Reducing Racial
Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System, Governor Jim Doyle issued Executive
Order 251, which directs government agencies to collect data regarding disparities in
traffic citations, arrest, charging, sentencing, and revocation patterns. The executive
order establishes a coordinated strategy to monitor criminal justice practices for the
presence of unwarranted disparities and calls upon relevant agencies to provide
training to address the factors that contribute to these disproportionalities.
Additionally, the Office of Justice Assistance is directed to study the role that
prosecutorial discretion plays in contributing to these disparities, with a focus on the
impact of criminal history. The executive order also creates a Racial Disparities
Oversight Commission to monitor developments in the treatment of people of color
in the criminal justice system.

10

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

SENTENCING
Kentucky
Kentucky lawmakers passed SJR 80 in response to prison and jail overcrowding that
the General Assembly attributes to an “uneven penalty scheme” in the Kentucky
Penal Code. The resolution creates the Penal Code Subcommittee of the Interim
Joint Committee on Judiciary, which will review the Kentucky Penal Code with an
eye toward consistency and equity in proportionality of punishment, study the efforts
of other states to modify their penal code, and consider whether current sentences for
drug offenses, property crimes, and other non-violent offenses warrant adjustments.
The report was to be completed by December, 2008.
Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed legislation aimed at reducing recidivism
and addressing prison overcrowding. In addition to a minimum and maximum
term, HB 4 authorizes a sentencing court to provide a recidivism risk reduction
incentive minimum sentence (RRRI) for certain non-violent offenses, equal to a
fraction of the minimum sentence. If an individual completes certain programs and
maintains good behavior, s/he will be eligible for accelerated release under the RRRI
schedule.
South Carolina
In response to correctional budget pressures and prison overcrowding, the South
Carolina Legislature passed S 144, which establishes the South Carolina Sentencing
Reform Commission. The Commission will review current practices in sentencing
and parole and identify potential areas of needed reform. The Commission will issue
a report to the Legislature in the spring of 2009.

11

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT
Kentucky
Governor Steve Beshear rescinded the requirement that any person seeking to have
his/her voting rights restored following a felony conviction must submit an essay,
three character references, and an application fee.

JUVENILE JUSTICE
Colorado
Prior to the passage of SB 66, Colorado law prohibited juveniles convicted of Class 1
first-degree murder and certain Class 2 felonies from being sentenced in the Youthful
Offender System (YOS). Under the new law, a defendant facing charges for these
offenses would be eligible to plead to a Class 2 felony and face prosecution in the
YOS. In all likelihood, this would prevent the defendant from facing a life sentence
in the adult system. The Colorado Legislative Council Staff notes that the maximum
stay in a YOS facility is 72 months, while an average stay for a life sentence is
estimated to be 720 months.

HIGHER EDUCATION IN PRISON
Utah
The Utah Legislature appropriated $150,000 from the state education fund to be
distributed to state institutions that are currently providing postsecondary education
to incarcerated persons in conjunction with the Utah Department of Corrections.
The intent of the bill, HB 86, is to stabilize current programs, pay staff, and purchase
supplies.

12

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
State policymakers and practitioners will continue to face the challenges of an
expanding correctional population in 2009. With each passing year, the cumulative
effect of nearly 700,000 annual prison admissions will compound the urgency and
difficulty of achieving true reform. Important steps that policymakers should
consider in 2009 include:
Reconsider Overly Harsh Sentencing Policies
The last four decades of state criminal justice policy have been characterized by
punitive sentencing legislation that has resulted in more people sentenced to prison
for longer periods of time, with at best a modest impact on crime rates. Lawmakers
should reconsider sentencing policies that result in unnecessarily lengthy terms of
incarceration, including mandatory minimums, “truth-in-sentencing,” and life
without parole.
Expand Cost-Effective Alternatives to Incarceration and Sentencing Diversion
Options
Half of all persons in prison have been sentenced for a non-violent offense. Many of
these persons could be supervised in the community while enrolled in communitybased treatment and/or training services that have been proven to reduce crime at a
fraction of the cost of incarceration. Policymakers should work to establish and
expand options for judges, such as drug courts and community-based supervision
mechanisms. It is crucial to provide adequate investment in strategies proven to
reduce recidivism, such as substance-abuse treatment, counseling, education services,
and vocational training.

13

THE STATE OF SENTENCING 2008 | DEVELOPMENTS IN POLICY AND PRACTICE

Revise Parole and Probation Revocation Procedures
In 2007, one-third of the 700,000 admissions to prison were due to a revocation of
parole. Many of these admissions were for technical violations of parole, such as
failing a drug test or missing mandatory meetings. While it is important that persons
under supervision be held accountable for their actions, it is questionable whether it
is always necessary to return technical violators to prison, at significant financial cost.
Lawmakers and state officials should revisit revocation procedures, for both
probation and parole, with a focus on utilizing intermediate sanctions and other
responses that do not result in a return to custody.
Revisit Parole Eligibility Criteria
In addition to longer sentences, many of the “tough on crime” policy changes of
recent decades have focused on limiting parole eligibility or abolishing it outright. In
addition, early discharge through earning “good time” credits has been greatly
restricted. These policies have contributed to growth in the prison population while
reducing the incentive for persons in prison to participate in programming.
Lawmakers should revisit restrictions on parole eligibility that are tied to
unnecessarily lengthy time served and provide incentives to earn reductions in
sentence length through program participation.
Expand Eligibility for Proven Diversion and Treatment Programs
The advance in drug treatment diversion, particularly with the innovation of drug
courts, has been a welcome development. However, many programs exclude persons
with repeat, violent, or non-drug offenses. In some cases, these restrictions may be
appropriate. However, a person convicted of theft, for example, who engaged in the
crime to fund a drug addiction would also likely benefit from expanded treatment
options. Lawmakers should consider expanding eligibility for these programs beyond
first-time and non-violent offenses when appropriate.

FURTHER READING AVAILABLE AT www.sentencingproject.org:

The State of Sentencing 2007: Developments in Policy and Practice
Changing Direction? State Sentencing Reforms 2004-2006
State Sentencing and Corrections Policy in an Era of Fiscal Restraint

 

 

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