This Week in Mass Incarceration: Recidivism Rates Down, New Sentencing Guidelines, and More

In this week’s roundup of top stories, recent reforms lead to gains in the fight against mass incarceration.

October 4, 2013

The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning mass incarceration and the ongoing need for criminal justice reform. For updates on these stories or mass incarceration in general, follow #massincarceration, #prisonreform, and #cjreform on Twitter.

  • A Washington Times op-ed from Cara Sullivan, the director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Justice Performance Project, endorsed prison reforms that would allow more judicial discretion. ALEC’s work to decrease mass incarceration is informed by its beliefs in limited government and fiscal efficiency. Sullivan writes it is “clear that higher spending and incarceration rates do not necessarily translate to increased public safety … Allocating resources for the most serious offenders ensures the criminal justice system is providing the most public safety return per taxpayer dollar.”
  • Prison reformers in Maryland have reason to cheer, as recidivism rates within three years of release have fallen 11 percent since 2000, when more than half of all ex-offenders returned to prison or were put on probation for new offenses. Secretary of Public Safety & Correctional Services Gary D. Maynard gives credit to the “prison system's improved educational and job skills training programs, as well as stronger partnerships with state agencies that provide medical and mental health services to inmates and upon their release.” Both officials and prisoners have lauded the educational and job skills programs.
  • Alabama’s new sentencing guidelines for low-level nonviolent offenders took effect on October 1. Lengthy automatic minimum sentences were eased, and judges will now use a worksheet to determine what sentence is appropriate. The guidelines remove or modify harsh mandatory minimums, while simultaneously imposing sentencing uniformity to ensure that defendants facing similar charges across the state receive the same sentences. Many judges and prosecutors have criticized the stricter guidelines, but others say they understand what spurred the change: rising prison costs, pervasive overcrowding, and issues of fairness.
  • Connecticut’s recent strides to close racial and ethnic gaps in prison populations could prove an excellent role model for other states. The change was sorely needed: In 2007, the state had “the nation's highest disparity between Hispanics and whites in the prison population” and the fourth-highest disparity between blacks and whites. In the last five years, the number of black and Hispanic inmates has decreased by 15 percent each, while the number of white women has gone down by six percent. Michael Lawlor, head of Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, attributes the change in part to “a real awareness of racial disparity in the prison system and criminal justice in general,” a sentiment echoed by Bill Dyson, chair of Connecticut’s racial profiling commission, who said that there is “a change in attitude, a lessening of the hostility.”