S. E. Williams

The disparate number of Blacks confined in the nation’s prisons has long outnumbered Whites, but a PEW Research report published in January 2018 showed the trend was beginning to shift.

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed since 2009, the gap between Blacks and Whites has reduced by nearly half, yet much remains to be done to assure parity in the application of criminal justice.

Although the United States continues to lead the world in the number of citizens under the authority of the criminal justice system, 2018 witnessed champions of criminal justice reform across the county, achieve victories in their relentless quest to successfully chip away at the injustice in America’s criminal justice system.

A report by the nonprofit Sentencing Project, showed states across the country implemented reforms aimed at reducing the magnitude of the nation’s incarceration rates while also peeling back some of the long-term consequences of felony convictions, and in the process, give hope to the thousands of Black, their families and communities who continue to suffer from the impact of over incarceration from sea to shining sea.

California for example, implemented several reforms aimed at reducing the state’s prison population. Those efforts included SB 1437, which eliminated life without parole for those convicted of felony murder/ homicide in which they were not the actual killer and SB 1437 which enables those previously sentenced for felony murder to petition for resentencing if they meet certain qualifications.

Florida voters adopted Amendment 11 which allows the state’s sentencing reforms to be retroactive. The amendment repealed language in the state’s constitution which blocked the legislature from retroactively applying such reductions. Florida voters also approved Amendment 4, and in the process, expanded voting rights to approximately 1.4 million with a felony conviction

The states of Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, New York and Washington D.C. also expanded voting rights for those in their states with felony convictions. While the governor of New York signed an Executive Order, which expanded voting rights to nearly 35,000 residents of his state.

A variety of reforms were adopted in states like Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Although the reforms varied from state to state, Included among the reforms were enhanced parole reviews, limits placed on incarceration for parole violations, the establishment of likely parole standards for limited offenses, authorizingpersons on parole to pre-register to vote prior to completing their sentence, allowing jails to serve as polling locations or requiring notification of voting rights to justice-involved persons.

Colorado also passed Amendment A which removed language from its constitution that allowed slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as a legal form punishment for the conviction of a crime.

Several states also took steps to address the inherent racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. For example, Florida adopted SB 1392, creating a transparent, uniform databank containing information on arrest, bail proceedings, and sentencing, and will be searchable by the public through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website.

In Pennsylvania lawmakers enacted HB 1469 and as a result, criminal records in the state will now be sealed for certain offenses 10 years after a conviction and HB 163 eliminated drivers’ license suspensions in cases where the conviction was not a driving related offense; while in the state of Delaware, HB 97 also removed license barriers for those convicted of certain crimes.

Connecticut’s SB256, expanded the state’s which authorizes any lawmaker to request a racial impact statement which will enable lawmakers to identify factors contributing to disparities in the state’s criminal justice system to assist in their development and monitoring or policy solutions.

Adults caught up in the America’s criminal justice system were not the only ones to benefit from the movement for criminal justice reform in 2018—at least two states, initiated reforms in the juvenile justice system as well.

In California,  SB 439 established 12 years as the minimum age for prosecution in juvenile court, unless a minor younger than 12 commits murder or rape and SB1391 eliminated the ability for prosecutors to try a defendant under the age of 16 as an adult. And, inMissouri, SB 793, increased the age for trying youth as adults from 17 to 18.