Trends in Sentencing and Corrections: State Legislation

Trends in Sentencing and Corrections

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A new report, Trends in Sentencing and Corrections: State Legislation, by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), describes recent legislative trends that are contributing to declines in numbers of persons under correctional supervision, safer communities and more effective use of corrections resources.  Actions in a growing number of states are setting a new course that involves data-driven strategies and with results measured in terms of reductions in crime and recidivism. 

A distinguishing feature of some of the most 

comprehensive legislation has been cross-governmental and bipartisan planning. Many states have engaged in a “justice reinvestment” process that involves data collection and analysis of trends affecting prison populations and costs; and development and adoption of policies addressing those factors. 

Significant trends detailed in the report include:

Adjusting Sentences: State legislatures are reexamining who goes to prison and for how long, with a focus on preserving costly prison space for the most dangerous offenders. Recent years have seen a steady increase in changes to sentencing policy for drug crimes, including diverting some offenders to community supervision and treatment, adjusting drug penalty thresholds and relaxing mandatory minimum sentences. Felony theft thresholds also have been reviewed and adjusted in a number of states.  

Improving Community Supervision: An emerging trend in states is requiring that agencies supervising offenders employ policies and practices proven to reduce recidivism. This includes use of validated risk and needs assessments  to determine treatment, program placement and supervision level and providing fiscal incentives to localities that successfully supervise offenders in the community rather than sending them to prison. 

Responding to Probation and Parole Violations: More than half of state legislatures have taken action since 2007 to address rule violations of offenders by creating  options other than return to prison. Many have authorized graduated sanctions, administrative sanctions, short jail stays or specialized violator facilities.

Addressing Offender Needs: Recent trends in state legislation include appropriately matching offenders with suitable treatment and ensuring that high-quality services are provided in community-based diversion programs; for example, specialized veteran’s courts and supervision services to  respond to needs of military veterans who become involved in the criminal justice system. Increasingly, states require use of information at sentencing about an offender’s mental health and substance abuse needs.

Attention to Release and Reentry: Recent legislation has focused on prison release policies and providing offenders with skills, services and supervision to help them succeed after release. This includes earned-time policies that provide sentence credits for offenders who successfully participate in educational, vocational, work and other accountability programs.


The Trends report was prepared under a partnership project of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Criminal Justice Program in Denver, Colo., and The Pew Charitable Trustspublic safety performance projectWashington, D.C.