Spotlight on Legislative Victories

Arizona

  • Smoothing Prisoners’ Transition Back to Society –  USJAN is working to create momentum for effective corrections reform in Arizona. This session, we supported legislation that enables a smoother transition back into society for eligible non-violent prisoners, by providing the opportunity to work in the community, and increasing access to education, drug treatment and mental health assistance programs. Gov. Ducey signed the measures into law in May 2016.

Illinois

  • Reduced Penalties for Minor Drug Offenses –  Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law SB 2228, a marijuana decriminalization bill that will focus the state’s justice system on serious offenders instead of those who commit minor drug offenses. Additionally, individuals charged with possession will have the civil citation automatically removed from their record after they pay the fine. USJAN worked tirelessly with the Illinois Policy Institute and a large bipartisan group of local leaders to bring this legislation to the governor’s desk.

Iowa

  • Sealed Records for Juveniles –  Iowa enacted legislation that would keep juvenile court records confidential. Senate File 2288 passed unanimously in the Senate and 97-1 in the House. Gov. Terry Branstad signed the bill into law in March 2016.
  • Curbed Mandatory Minimums –  USJAN worked with legislators and the attorney general to provide an earlier opportunity for parole hearings for non-violent first-time drug offenders. We were able to secure unanimous passage of HF 2064 in the House and strong support in the Senate. The bill was signed into law in May 2016.

Associated Press: “Iowa inmates convicted of certain drug offenses and serving mandatory minimum sentences might get less time in prison under a bill signed into law Thursday. Its backers say the law also will reduce the disproportionate number of minorities in the state’s criminal justice system. The legislation will allow certain non-violent drug offenders in Iowa to be eligible for parole after they serve at least half of their mandatory minimum sentence… The U.S. Justice Action Network praised the legislation upon its passage in April.”

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier: “The reforms that passed are good first steps to save Iowa tax dollars and safely reduce the state’s nonviolent prison population,” Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said in a statement. “We hope that this legislation is just the beginning of Iowa’s journey down the road to a smarter, fairer and more cost-effective criminal justice system.”

Kentucky

  • Removing Obstacles for Those with Criminal Records –  USJAN worked with legislative leaders and stakeholders to pass HB 40, which will permit certain offenders who have served their time and paid restitution to apply to expunge their criminal records. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Matt Bevin in April 2016.
  • Introduced Criminal Justice Reform Council –  USJAN was asked by Gov. Matt Bevin to join him in introducing the new Criminal Justice Reform Council. Gov. Bevin’s rollout of the commonwealth’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council was a huge success, attracting widespread coverage across the state. A summary of that coverage is available here.

Louisiana

  • Removing Barriers to Reentry in the State With the Highest Incarceration Rate –  USJAN worked closely with a coalition of legislators and local leaders on the left and right to pass a range of reforms that will ease the reentry process for those leaving prison. This includes HB 266, which made Louisiana the 24th state to “ban the box” for state employment, and HBs 145, 146, 347, and 1022 which expand and improve the state’s Reentry Court program and create a “Swift and Certain Probation Pilot Program,” both of which are effective methods of reducing recidivism rates. We also worked to pass HB 7, which would expand existing expungement practices to allow certain offenses to be expunged from an employed individual’s record after ten years.

Associated Press: “Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan group advocating criminal justice reform, said the law helps to fight the stigma of a criminal record. The proposal eventually gained traction among a number of interest groups across the political spectrum, including the Pelican Institute, ACLU of Louisiana, the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the Louisiana Family Forum. Similar legislative pushes have failed, but recent support from conservative and faith-based community groups helped to turn the tide, Harris said. “As a society we are starting to talk about this in terms of public safety,” she said. “Employment is one major obstacle to a crime-free life, and people are now agreeing this is the right thing to do — not just for moral purposes but for public safety.”

The Advocate: “The (legislation’s) backers made for “strange political bedfellows,” said Holly Harris, an advocate of the measure who heads the U.S. Justice Action Network, a nonprofit social welfare group formed in Ohio to coordinate lobbying between conservatives and liberals on issues such as reducing prison populations. Family Forum’s support was crucial to getting Republican support in the House, where it passed by a single vote. “Had those conservative voices not been in the conversation, we wouldn’t be here today,” Harris said. “These programs save money. They put people back to work. And they strengthen families. All of those are conservative principles and to be able to have (Family Forum President) Gene Mills standing next to the governor on this, that provides the narrative that anyone should be able to vote for this,” Harris said.”

Louisiana Radio Network: “Louisiana is not the first “Ban The Box” state, and backers of the bill are hoping that it will lead to better chances for ex-convicts to get decent jobs so that they may become more productive members of society. Holly Harris, with the U.S. Justice Action Network, remarked that the bill made for “strange political bedfellows,” as many backers of the bill are on the opposite side of the political spectrum.”

Maryland

  • Reforming Civil Asset Forfeiture –  USJAN worked with legislative ally state Sen. Michael Hough and state stakeholders to introduce and advance civil asset forfeiture reforms that expand procedural protections for property owners and increase reporting on the use of proceeds. The bill (SB 161) passed on a vote of 133-8 in the House and 42-0 in the Senate. Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bill into law in May 2016.
  • Improving Justice System Outcomes –  Maryland this year passed the Justice Reinvestment Act to save the state money by focusing prison beds on more serious offenders and improving access to drug treatment. The legislation also included reforms to mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession and distribution crimes. The bill (SB 1005) passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House. Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bill into law in May 2016.

Washington Times: “The issue brought together the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the U.S. Justice Action Network, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Cato Institute, Right on Crime and the American Legislative Exchange Council.”

Maryland Reporter: “The bill has support from a national organization for criminal justice reform. Holly Harris, an attorney who serves as executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network and its subsidiary, Fix Forfeiture, rejected Cassilly’s assertion that major drug dealers would be beneficiaries. “You talked about getting to the assets of kingpins with horse farms and jets and millions of dollars, but that’s just not the reality of the vast majority of seizures out there, which are typically $300 or less.”

Michigan

  • Reforming Civil Asset Forfeiture –  USJAN secured the support of the Michigan Association of Police Organizations and built a state-based coalition to pass reforms HB 4499, 4500, 4503, 4504, 4505, 4506, and 4507 that improve transparency, reporting and oversight for forfeited property. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the measures into law in October 2015.

Associated Press: “A national group representing the left and right of the political spectrum is concentrating on Michigan as ripe for criminal justice changes that include releasing parolees earlier and taming law enforcement’s seizure of people’s assets regardless of whether charges are filed. The U.S. Justice Action Network comprises groups such as the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and conservative FreedomWorks. The organization’s executive director, Holly Harris, has been lobbying lawmakers and hopes legislation is enacted by year’s end.”

WMUK 102.1: “The Justice Action Network has picked a few states to focus on, including Michigan. Harris says about one in five state dollars are spent on corrections. But she says there are reform minded leaders. Harris says Governor Snyder has advocated reform to reduce spending on the criminal justice system. Attorney General Bill Schuette has opposed proposed reforms and has been criticized by fellow Republicans. But Harris says her organization has had good discussions with Schuette on reform proposals, and says he has approached reform in “a thoughtful way.”

MLive: “€œMichigan residents should not have to pay for the right of due process. €œThis bill strengthens property rights and represents another step forward in reforming the state’€™s embattled civil asset forfeiture process. Given the overwhelming bipartisan support for this legislation in the House, we urge a swift vote in the Senate.” Holly Harris, Executive Director, U.S. Justice Action Network

Minnesota

  • Passed the Most Significant Reforms to Drug Laws in 30 Years –  In partnership with local leaders, USJAN helped to pass legislation that reduces mandatory minimums for low-level drug crimes, replacing them with a greater focus on treating the causes of addiction. Thanks to Sen. Latz and Rep. Cornish’s leadership, and the support of prominent law enforcement officials, SF 3481 passed the House unanimously in May on a 129-0 bipartisan vote – and was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Star Tribune: “According to a recent study released by the U.S. Justice Action Network, Minnesotans overwhelmingly support some type of criminal justice reform. The survey, conducted by national polling organization the Tarrance Group, reported that 83 percent of respondents favored overhauling sentencing to create tougher mandatory penalties for higher-level drug offenders, while pushing treatment for first-time and lower-level offenders.”

Star Tribune: “This compromise, while not perfect, has the support of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the state public defender, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the U.S. Justice Action Network. The Minnesota Senate passed the bill earlier this week with bipartisan support; now is the time to gain the support of the entire Legislature.”

Ohio

  • Improving Employment Opportunities for Individuals Leaving Incarceration –  Gov. John Kasich took steps to “ban the box” on state government job applications. USJAN worked with lawmakers to follow suit and pass House Bill 56, “ban the box” legislation that improves access to all government jobs, at the state and local levels, for individuals with criminal records. The bill passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers and was signed into law in December 2015.

The Columbus Dispatch: “In a statement, Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, urged the Ohio Senate to pass the legislation and commended Kasich for his executive order.”

The Nordonia Hills News-Leader: “Today’s vote provides thousands of Ohioans with a second chance at leading a crime-free life,” Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said in a released statement. “Now no applicant for a public-sector job — at the state or local level — will be automatically dismissed before receiving proper consideration. By ‘banning the box’ for public employment, the Senate is expanding employment opportunities for those leaving incarceration to better contribute to society.”

Oklahoma

  • Expanding Employment Opportunities for Individuals With Criminal Records –  We worked closely with Gov. Mary Fallin as she worked to remove the inquiry into prior criminal history on initial state government employment applications. Gov. Fallin signed a “ban the box” executive order in February 2016 that improves access to all government jobs at the state level for individuals with criminal records, making Oklahoma the 21st state (at the time) to implement such a policy.
  • Reforming Sentencing Laws –  USJAN and our partners drove forward reforms that will reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and expand access to alternative sentencing options like drug courts. By supporting champions like Sens. Greg Treat and Wayne Shaw and Rep. Pam Peterson, the bills (HB 2472, HB 2479, HB 2751, and HB 2753) achieved widespread bipartisan support and will begin to advance common sense and effective justice reform in Oklahoma. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bills into law in April 2016.

The Oklahoman: “The Washington-based U.S. Justice Action Network said the governor’s order should lead to expanded employment opportunities. “Individuals with records too often struggle to find good jobs to support their families, which is why we commend Gov. Fallin’s effort today to provide thousands of Oklahoma residents a second chance at leading a crime-free life,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.”

Tulsa World (Op-Ed): “This is one step forward, and Oklahoma policymakers are in a prime position to continue the momentum and pass common-sense, bipartisan criminal justice reforms that make our communities safer and stronger.”

Pennsylvania

  • Reducing Barriers to Employment for Those with Criminal Records –  USJAN worked with bipartisan lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 166, which allows certain low-level offenders to apply to seal their criminal records, removing a barrier that might have blocked individuals from obtaining jobs. Gov. Tom Wolf signed this bill into law in February 2016.

The Philadelphia Tribune: “Many legislators, including representatives Patty Kim, Ron Marsico and Joe Petrarca, and senators Shirley Kitchen and Anthony Williams, were vital in sitting down and talking through this so we could come to an agreement that had the support of both parties,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. “I’m also grateful to the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which was included in these discussions and played an important role in crafting language all parties could agree on. While this isn’t the end of the road, it is a step in the right direction.”