States evaluate criminal-justice systems

criminal-justice-scholarshipsAfter two decades of “tough on crime” policies, many states are taking a hard look at how people are charged, how much time they serve, and what happens when they are released from prison.

Many states are looking at growing prison populations, obstacles to drug treatment, and high recidivism rates as reasons to re-evaluate their criminal-justice systems.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and many states are considering whether to build new prisons, change how they sentence people, and change how they guide prisoners through parole and probation.

Several states, including Alaska, Maryland and Rhode Island, are considering changes that would ease some of the punitive policies of the 1980s and ’90s, especially when it comes to drug offenders. In some places, lawmakers will consider recommendations made by criminal-justice task forces, often with the guidance of outside groups such as the Council of State Governments and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“If there’s a theme or common denominator, it is policymakers asking what the science says will work,” said Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. “The question they’re asking is, ‘Can we get a better return on our investment?'”

States that want to decrease the number of people going to prison often turn to reducing sentences, by either scrapping mandatory minimums or reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors. They may also divert people into treatment for drug addiction or mental illness.

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