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This Week in Mass Incarceration: California Hunger Strike Ends, Marijuana Laws, and More

The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning mass incarceration and the ongoing need for criminal justice reform. This week’s top stories involved California prison reform and Senate hearings on marijuana policy.

  • Abigail Finkelman
September 13, 2013

The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning mass incarceration and the ongoing need for criminal justice reform. This week’s top stories involved two major breakthroughs in California’s prison reform efforts and Senate hearings on the nation’s marijuana policy and how it pertains to states that have legalized the drug.

For updates on these stories or mass incarceration in general, follow #massincarceration and #prisonreform on Twitter.

  • California has been dealing with two major prison crises. Progress was made on both this week. First, 30,000 inmates ended a hunger strike that had been going on for two months. The inmates were protesting the state’s use of solitary confinement, and agreed to end the strike after state legislators promised to hold hearings on the issue.  Another breakthrough came with Gov.Jerry Brown and the California legislature reaching a solution on the state’s unconstitutional overcrowding. They asked the federal court to give them more time to implement their population-reduction plans, which involve focusing on drug and mental health treatment and reducing recidivism. If the judges turn down the request, the legislature has agreed to begin executing Brown’s original idea of shipping inmates out of state.
  • The Department of Justice filed a brief in Washington State supporting a lawsuit against two towns that provided inadequate public defense services. The Justice Department argued in Wilbur v. Mount Vernon that public defenders have far too many cases to muster a competent defense for their clients. The DOJ’s brief points out that it is untenable to have two public part-time lawyers working more than 2,000 cases, as was the situation when the suit was filed. “[A win in the case] would allow others to bring suit and push forward indigent defense reform through the courts,” Jessica Eaglin stated in The Seattle Times.
  • In Washington, D.C., the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the country’s marijuana policy. The hearing, called for by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), focused on how the federal government planned to reconcile its ban on marijuana with state laws legalizing small amounts of recreational or medical marijuana. The discussion weighed the pros and cons of the federal government ignoring state law when it conflicted with federal law. The potential ramifications of legalization were also discussed, including concerns that states with legalized marijuana would export it to states with stricter laws.
  • Georgia found a way to save the state money and potentially reduce mass incarceration—by reclassifying existing drug and property felonies into misdemeanors. The state pays county and city jails based on how many state prisoners they hold for felonies. By reclassifying these crimes from 2012, Georgia aimed to reduce the number of felons in jails, thereby reducing these payouts. While this might reduce prison populations, it means less money goes to local and county jails. In Whitfield County alone, the funding received by jails declined from $496,140 in 2011 to $47,929 in the first half of 2013. But even with this financial hit, the county captain, who oversees corrections, endorsed the bill, saying that its goals are sound, but that the implementation needs to be reviewed so that small towns are not penalized.