E-Bulletin: Sentencing and Corrections Policy Updates Newsletter

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The E-Bulletin is an NCSL electronic newsletter for state legislators, legislative staff, and others interested in state sentencing corrections policy. This newsletter provides periodic updates on state sentencing and corrections legislation and budgets, highlights innovative policies and programs, and connects you with reports and news of upcoming NCSL events.

The E-Bulletin is prepared under a partnership project of NCSL's Criminal Justice Program and the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States.  The NCSL project is designed to help states find the best research and information availale when considering sentencing and corrections policy options and reforms.

This article appeared in the February 2011 issue of the E-Bulletin  (Full newsletter in pdf)

Issue in Focus:  Data-Driven Laws in 2011

The issue forum “A Data-Driven Approach to Reducing Prison Spending” at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in July 2010, focused on data-driven strategies that states are using to create sentencing and corrections policies that decrease recidivism, protect public safety and reduce prison spending.

States are identifying and analyzing successful strategies to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. Legislators use that information to weigh various sentencing and corrections policy options and allocate scarce resources to programs and policies that promote these goals.
In 2010, these policies included requiring risk  assessments for sentencing and offender supervision, authorizing intermediate sanctions for probation and parole violations, and implementing evidence-based programs.

Risk Assessments

At least 10 states passed legislation in 2010 requiring the use of risk assessments when making sentencing, programming and release decisions. Alabama and Indiana instructed drug court programs to use risk assessments to determine the type and level of treatment for participants. A California law instructs the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to include risk assessment scores in eligibility criteria for a parenting diversion program. The law also requires risk assessments be used to develop individualized treatment plans for program participants. New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and West Virginia incorporate the use of assessments into the process of linking offenders with appropriate programming and services. Pennsylvania’s law also instructs the sentencing commission to adopt a risk assessment tool to be used as a guide for determining appropriate sentences.
Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and South Carolina instructed their parole boards to consider risk assessment scores when making release decisions. Under the new laws, Colorado’s and Pennsylvania’s parole boards will develop and use structured guidelines that incorporate offender risk when making release and parole revocation decisions.

Intermediate Sanctions

At least eight states—Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia—enacted policies in 2010 that create or expand the use of intermediate sanctions for technical violations of probation and parole. NCSL’s Probation and Parole Violations: State Responses report discusses states’ use of intermediate sanctions as a community-based option for technical violations.
Based on the success of Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, the Legislature requested the Paroling Authority to establish a similar program for parole. The two-year pilot program will include formal warning hearings, random drug screenings, and swift and certain sanctions—aspects of the HOPE program that are credited for its low rates of recidivism.
South Carolina authorized the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services to impose administrative sanctions for violations of community supervision. Administrative sanctions empower the supervising agency to impose community-based sanctions in lieu of formal revocation proceedings. An evaluation of a program in Georgia—the Probation Management Act, first implemented in 2004—documented more than $1.1 million in savings to local jails within the first three years of operation. 
Colorado and Pennsylvania limited the use of revocation to prison for technical violations of supervision. Colorado now prohibits revocation unless all appropriate intermediate sanctions have been used, and Pennsylvania instructs the probation and parole board to use incarceration as a sanction only if community options would pose an undue risk to public safety.

Evidence-Based Programs

A number of states have laws requiring the use of evidence-based programs that have been empirically proven to reduce recidivism. NCSL’s Innovations in Community Corrections report examines some of these policies. At least six states supported implementation of evidence-based practices for offender supervision in 2010.
Pennsylvania and South Carolina laws require that all community-based offender supervision be evidence-based; and private contractors that provide reentry programming in South Carolina also must use evidence-based programs. A parole revocation facility in New Hampshire now must offer evidence-based programs, and laws in California and Florida require specific offender programs to incorporate evidence-based practices.
States such as Kansas and South Carolina support implementation of evidence-based programs by providing probation and parole officers with specific training on the programs.
Six states—Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia—have instructed task forces or advisory boards to evaluate and consider the use of evidence-based or best practices in offender supervision.

Looking Ahead

Lawmakers continue to look at policies and programs that are proven to protect public safety, reduce recidivism and control prison spending. In 2010, at least 23 states instructed task forces or study commissions to review a variety of sentencing and corrections policies. Addressing everything from females in the criminal justice system to criminal laws and sentencing practices to community corrections services, these task forces are expected to make recommendations for policy changes within the next biennium.

An NCSL Sentencing and Corrections Work Group is developing guiding principles for state sentencing and corrections policy ; a report is scheduled for release in early August 2011. The bipartisan group of 19 lawmakers brings a wealth of ideas and experience to this work on a framework for reducing recidivism and making communities safer.