Civil & Criminal Justice Overview

Image of Lady JusticeThe NCSL Criminal Justice Program tracks state legislative interests and actions on a wide range of topics that reflect the many aspects and functions of criminal justice systems. Most crimes fall under the jurisdiction of states, making criminal justice a significant responsibility and expenditure item for state and local governments.  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 criminal offenders and victims. NCSL research and publications address many crime issues, and our staff offers states customized assistance and training on key topics like corrections, juvenile justice, pretrial and others. 

Corrections and Sentencing

State legislatures are pivotal in developing sentencing and corrections strategies that focus on a trio of objectives: protecting public safety, holding offenders accountable, and doing so while making best use of fiscal resources. Significant trends include expanding eligibility for community corrections and improving supervision, employing diversion and treatment strategies, revising sentence lengths and prioritizing prison resources. Some states are also exploring policies that affect drug crime and offenders.

Juvenile Justice

Preventing and addressing juvenile crime and delinquency remain perennial issues in state legislatures. NCSL tracks state actions that work to prevent delinquency; provide treatment to meet the alcohol, drug and mental health needs of young people; address the confidentiality of juvenile records; and otherwise address how young people are distinguished from adult offenders. NCSL has resources tracking how states are addressing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile life without parole sentences, including retroactive application.

Pretrial Release

Most criminal defendants are eligible for pretrial release, with very few exceptions for those charged with the most serious offenses, yet two-thirds of people in local jails are awaiting trial. State law provides a framework for judges and other local officials to determine who is eligible for release and under what conditions.  Actions of state legislatures in recent years include policies affecting risk assessments, victim-specific pretrial procedures and conditions, pretrial services and diversion programs.

Front-End Justice

The policy and budgetary decisions made in statehouses can have significant influence on local policy and practice. States have funded law enforcement programs that deflect some individuals with behavioral health needs away from formal arrest and booking procedures. Pretrial release reforms have encouraged the use of risk assessments to identify and release low-risk defendants awaiting trial and have developed guidelines for diverting away from jail certain defendants. National efforts are underway to collect data and better understand how local corrections systems can cost-effectively reduce recidivism and protect public safety. Read more about state policies affecting front-end justice.

Other Hot Topics

In addition to many perennial criminal justice issues, NCSL provides information and analysis on current and emerging topics of interest to lawmakers and their constituents. These includes human trafficking and related policies designed to identify traffickers and provide services to victims; “911 criminal immunity” laws and related measures that make drug overdose antidote medications more widely available; marijuana crime policies; sex offender registration and restrictions; death penalty matters; and other topics.         

The NCSL Criminal Justice Program includes Sarah Brown, Amanda Essex, Michael Hartman, Alison Lawrence, Anne Teigen, and Amber Widgery in the Denver office. You may contact us at or (303) 364-7700.