There are more black men behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850, wrote Michelle Alexander, author of the 2010 novel The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Many criminal justice and civil rights advocates have pointed to harsh drug sentencing as the source of the disproportionate number of African Americans incarcerated in the United States each year.
African Americans constitute 13.6 percent of the U.S. population according to Census data issued in 2011, yet black men reportedly make up 40.2 percent of all prison inmates. Additionally, the large sentencing disparity between crack possession and cocaine possession still exists in several states despite the implementation of the Fair Sentencing Acts of 2010.
In recent years, the Republican and Democrat parties have joined together to combat sky-rocketing incarceration rates that have led to overpopulation in and overspending for prisons. Brought on primarily by the financial crisis, this shift in policy and political standpoint on incarceration issues has sparked reform movements across the nation, even in areas with the harshest criminal justice systems.
Check out the slideshow we've compiled below of some states that have reformed their drug sentencing laws.
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Texas Undertakes Innovative Reforms
In Texas, a projection showed that the number of inmates would outnumber the number of available inmate beds by about 17,000 in 2007. Having decided to forgo building new facilities, the state instead sent nonviolent offenders to community-based mental health and addiction treatment programs. The state also boosted the number of re-entry programs offered to released prisoners, in hopes of decreasing recidivism rates. As a result, taxpayers saved millions of dollars, while the state closed its second oldest prison Sugarland in 2011, making it the first prison to be closed in Texas history. During this time, the outstanding crime rate in Texas also dropped to its lowest point in decades. Prior to this renovation, Texas demonstrated a radical move in 2003 when <a href="http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/smartreformispossible_web.pdf" target="_hplink">Governor Rick Perry signed into law a bill</a> that mandated probation and drug treatment for first-time, low-level drug offenders in place of jail. Perry also pardoned 35 African-Americans unfairly convicted of drug offenses in the landmark Tulia case that same year. This highly publicized case spurred several reforms to the state's criminal system, including legally prohibiting racial profiling by police officers.
South Carolina Scales Back With Bipartisan Support
In answer to South Carolina's swelling prison population and costs, the state passed S. 1154, a law that ushered in several, progressive reforms to South Carolina's drug sentencing in 2010. Originally advocated by the state's Sentencing Reform Commission, the reforms included eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for simple drug possession, as well as abolishing the highly protested sentencing disparities for crack and cocaine possession. The state also granted judges the ability to enforce non-prison sentencing, such as work release, good conduct and probation, at the their own discretion.
Ohio Overhauls State's Drug Sentencing
In another instance of bipartisan reform, Republican and Democrat legislators joined to find a solution to Ohio's rising prison population and costs. Through analyzing various factors, officials discovered the largest setbacks, which included high recidivism rates amongst low-level crime offenders who lacked the support of re-entry programs or other supervision. The report of the findings also showed disorganization within the state's probation system. Overwhelming support from Ohio's Republican legislators ultimately resulted in the passing of a law in 2011 that reduced drug sentences and juvenile incarceration rates and expanded parole. "I don't want anyone to think we've lost discipline," <a href="http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2011/06/ohio_gov_john_kasich_signs_sen.html" target="_hplink">Gov. John Kasich told Celeveland.com</a>. "You do bad. . . We're locking you up. But for someone that wants to do better, we're giving you a chance." A great deal of drug sentencing reforms were consequently enacted, including reducing mandatory minimum sentences for hash and marijuana offenses, ordering non-jail alternatives for misdemeanor offenses and nonviolent low-felony offenses. To better organize and inform probation departments, the law also offered financial incentives to those agencies that saw a reduced recidivism rate.
Kentucky's Task Force Leads to Major Changes
Kentucky's harsh drug sentencing in the 1980s lead to a dramatic increase in the state's prison population, due to a spike in arrest and the long sentences given to those convicted of felony drug possession. <a href="http://www.pewstates.org/research/analysis/2011-kentucky-reforms-cut-recidivism-costs-85899380803" target="_hplink">According to Pew Center on the States</a>, Kentucky's prison population experienced a growth of 45 percent, compared to the national rate of 13 percent. Legislators were initially hesitant to reform sentencing, however, when faced with a looming budget crisis they launched the bipartisan Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act in 2010. On the recommendation of the Task Force, the House almost-unanimously passed a reform law in March 2011. The law's softening of harsh drug sentencing resulted in judges' discharging individuals without bail for low-level drug crimes that could end in probation and granting judges room to enforce treatment for felony possession of drugs other than marijuana. Additional mandates include lowering the maximum for possession or trafficking drugs from five years to three and making the simple possession of marijuana a low misdemeanor.
New Jersey Makes Historic Move With New Law
<a href="http://www.pewstates.org/projects/stateline/headlines/with-governors-signature-new-jersey-expands-drug-courts-85899406300" target="_hplink">Governor Chris Christie signed a bill in July 2011</a> making New Jersey the first state to require drug treatment for certain offenders. Having received bipartisan support, the bill enacts treatment instead of than incarceration for drug-abusers convicted of non-violent crimes. "I'm a believer in this, because I've seen it happen," Christie said at a press conference on the new law. "I watched miracles happen every day....I watched over a period of a year people reclaim their lives and become productive members of society." Like many states, New Jersey has accepted voluntary drug courts as a way of decreasing a rising amount of reoffenders. While the state has seen a drastic decrease in recidivism rates for program graduates, the voluntary nature of the program has faced criticism. Under Florida's new law, judges, not offenders, have the ultimate say as to whether or not they receive treatment, so filtering out those with true addictions becomes difficult.