The NCSL Blog

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By Michael Hartman and Arthur Wagner

Participants in the Safety and Justice Challenge’s Moving Forward Together virtual network meeting June 30 discussed how recent state legislative actions and trends demonstrates legislative interest and momentum in the direction of local justice and jail reform.

NCSL's Amber Widgery with Illinois Senator Elgie R. Sims Jr. (D) and Montana  Representative Barry Usher (R), left.The Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) is a national initiative that has provided more than $148 million in grants to local jurisdictions intending to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

NCSL has been a strategic ally of the SJC since 2015 and NCSL’s Amber Widgery, alongside Illinois Senator Elgie R. Sims Jr. (D) and Montana  Representative Barry Usher (R), delivered the opening plenary session.

Laurie Garduque, director for justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation began the meeting with an optimistic and hopeful message, noting a big change the foundation has recently taken. SJC has “formed a new advisory council that brings on board, with respect to our membership, people with lived experience who have knowledge and experience with community engagement and coalition building and who are familiar with the history of a systemic and institutional racism.”

She also shared important data collected at SJC sites:  jail population numbers across jurisdictions in the initiative have decreased by 27% and, between 2017 and 2019, the decrease in violent crimes in SJC jurisdictions (-6%) outpaced the national trend.

Widgery asked each lawmaker several questions pertaining to their respective states’ recent actions surrounding law enforcement.

Asked what impact visiting SJC sites had on the legislative process, Usher said,  “What I probably learned most is sometimes it does take the state to jump in and prod some of these jurisdictions to work together or not just jurisdictions but cross-agencies that don’t necessarily talk to each other.”

Sims noted, “We worked tremendously hard with local officials. We started last year, well some of the parts have been in motion for years. After the murder of George Floyd we had hours of public hearings with municipalities, legislators, local bodies. And after the passing of the act we continued to have those discussions.

Specifically, regarding law enforcement legislation, Widgery noted an increase in the overall bucket of jail legislation across the nation

“There were 250 new enactments in 2021 alone signaling the start of a larger role for states in the oversight and accountability in policing, which has long been a function of local government.”

The plenary session ended with a focus on the importance of useful data collection and utilization.

Usher said his experience gained from working with the SJC network included, “access to greater resources so we can see what the right process, (what) the right diversion was.”

Asked about key takeaways from his state’s recent legislative endeavors, Sims said,  “So as opposed to having to have decisions be made based on someone’s anecdotal experience or what they’ve heard or anything like that, we wanted to have sound data so that when these decisions are being made, they are being made effectively.”

Their comments echoed the call for additional data and data sharing from Garduque: “We are also thinking about ways to take the lessons learned, to distill them into tools and resources that we can share with other jurisdictions, and most importantly, what we really want to do is elevate your (SJC network) leadership.”

The full-day meeting continued the process of adding and sharing data. In the words of Sims, “Reform is a journey, not a destination.”

Michael Hartman and Arthur Wagner are research analysts in NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.