DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Next Monday, Eric Holder will give a speech that we expect to propose some major policy shifts in the federal sentencing and enforcement arena.
As NPR reported this week, Holder’s position is that “there are too many people in jail for too long, and for not necessarily good reasons.” We could not agree more. Moreover, given the wave of criminal justice reforms we have seen cropping up in states around the country, now is the right time for the administration to get with the program and show some leadership in rolling back some pretty disastrous policies.
Over the past few years, state lawmakers have grown increasingly disenchanted with the results of extreme sentencing laws and broad criminalization of conduct instituted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These results include 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, the fact that 1 in 4 adults now has a serious misdemeanor or felony on their record making it difficult to secure employment and housing, and the mind boggling price tag of over $70 billion dollars a year (not counting collateral costs).
During the recently-ended 2013 legislative session, lawmakers took modest, promising steps to extract us from the mass incarceration trap. Here are the highlights:
MARIJUANA LAW REFORM
As we observed earlier this year, this is one of the strongest trends in criminal justice reform. The public, policy makers, and opinion makers are growing increasingly averse to senselessly punitive enforcement of marijuana laws. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s recent reversal of his previously hostile stance against marijuana is the most recent high-profile about-face in this arena. State lawmakers are taking cues: marijuana reform bills were introduced in 30 states this session. Below are some of the most impressive developments.
Washington and Colorado set the tone for the session with historic marijuana legalization initiatives that passed last fall. The passage of these measures with strong public support gave a boost to the long-term efforts of advocates in other states pushing for more sensible policies. Meanwhile, as progress unfolds elsewhere, advocates are holding their breath as Colorado and Washington begin the complex task of implementing large new regulatory schemes under the shadow of an ambivalent federal position.
In Vermont, where support for marijuana reform became a major campaign issue in the Attorney General race, the legislature passed a decriminalization bill (where possession remains unlawful but punishable only by a civil fine) by a large majority. Decriminalization bills in Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, and New Mexico each passed one legislative chamber and are likely to return next year. A New York bill to eliminate the “public view” exception to the state’s decriminalization law, which the NYPD has notoriously exploited by commanding people to empty their pockets during police stops and then arresting them for displaying marijuana in public, made it through the Assembly but not the Senate. A recently-introduced decriminalization bill in the District of Columbia was co-sponsored by a majority of City Council members and stands a strong chance of passing this fall.
Illinois, Maryland, and New Hampshire each legalized marijuana for medical use, which brings the total number of medical marijuana states to 20, as well as D.C. (which just opened its first dispensary after years of foot dragging by the Mayor’s office). Medical marijuana bills were introduced 16 other states; you can find more details about all of these bills at the Marijuana Policy Project’s website.