Civil & Criminal Justice Overview
Most crimes fall under the jurisdiction of states, making criminal justice an important perennial issue before state legislatures and a significant function and expenditure item for state and local governments. NCSL's Criminal Justice Program is a resource for state lawmakers and staff on a wide range of topics that reflect the many aspects and functions of criminal justice systems. Special projects help legislatures on sentencing and corrections policies, juvenile justice, and crime information, including policies that expand use of DNA to investigate and solve crimes. These and other public safety issues are included within the jurisdiction of NCSL's Law and Criminal Justice Standing Committee.
State legislatures are responsible for putting in place the policies that define what constitutes a crime, the procedures for responding to crime, sentencing structures and penalties, and funding and oversight of many of the government agencies that deal with crime, offenders and victims.
State legislatures are meeting the challenge of crafting corrections and sentencing policies that both manage state spending and protect the public. For two generations, prison populations and their associated costs were on the rise, but more recently states have been moving the needle the other direction. In 2009, for the first time in 37 years, the number of state prisoners declined and has continued to do so. In a growing number of states, “justice reinvestment” strategies are contributing to this trend. More than two dozen states have enacted data-driven reforms and significant reallocations in more than a dozen show promising results. An important part of these reforms are legislative requirements that courts, supervision agencies and release authorities use tools that provide for valid risk and needs assessments; and that dollars follow only evidence-based programs and practices.
Included in state corrections and sentencing reforms has been how criminal justice systems deal with drug offenders. A variety of policies divert some of these offenders to treatment as a strategy that contributes both to crime control and cost control. State attention also is focused on new synthetic drug threats, with many legislatures nationwide acting to outlaw synthetic cannabinoids (commonly known as “Spice” or “K2” and substituted cathinones (or “bath salts.)
States today continue to enact policies to register, restrict and monitor sex offenders. Some laws address federal requirements under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, with policies addressing who must register, including some juvenile offenders, tier classifications of offenders, duration of registration requirement and what information must be collected and shared. Many states today require that certain sex offenders provide Internet addresses and identifiers as part of the registration requirement. These policies are part of intergovernmental efforts to reduce cyber-victimization, especially to keep children safe online.
Capturing DNA's crime-fighting potential continues as an important theme in state crime control legislation. The earliest DNA sampling policies in states applied mostly to sex offenders, while today all convicted felony offenders, some misdemeanants and in some states must provide a sample. States also are developing parallel data bases that use forensic DNA technology to identify missing persons and unidentified remains. Use of DNA in post-conviction claims of innocence has been an important development in states. Most states now have policies specifically allowing post-conviction motions for DNA testing, and related policies address preservation of DNA evidence.
State legislatures consider and enact laws that address all aspects of pretrial release, including release eligibility, conditions of release, bail, commercial bail bonding, and pretrial diversion. These legislative policies have an important role in providing for fair, efficient and safe pretrial practices carried out by law enforcement and the courts. There were nearly three-quarters of a million individuals in jail at midyear 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 61 percent of those were pretrial, that is awaiting court action on a current charge. Many people who have been arrested and charged with a crime are eligible for release prior to trial, often with conditions set to ensure their return for court appearance. State interest is growing in how to make pretrial release more safe, effective and cost effective. In 2012, 40 states considered 395 bills or resolutions related to pretrial release, and of those there were 114 enactments in 33 states. Common issues addressed include eligibility for release, release options and commercial bail.
There are several important trends in juvenile justice. Research has contributed to legislative trends to distinguish juvenile from adult offenders and define the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. In some states this includes expanding procedural protections by making developmental immaturity a factor in determining if a juvenile should be tried in criminal court. Scientific screening and risk assessment tools are being employed to structure decision-making and identify needs of young offenders. Other legislative actions have increased due process protections for juveniles, reformed detention and addressed racial disparities in juvenile justice systems.
The NCSL Criminal Justice Program includes Donna Lyons, group director; Sarah Brown, Alison Lawrence, Anne Teigen, and Richard Williams in the Denver office. You may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 364-7700 in the Denver office.