Criminal justice victories of 2017

In 2017, the Prison Policy Initiative's campaigns saw real progress resulting in important policy changes, and our research brought to light issues that will demand more attention in the year ahead.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 28, 2017

At a time when the White House is setting back many of our goals, it’s important to reflect on our victories in the movement for criminal justice reform. And there were important victories in 2017: this year, the Prison Policy Initiative’s campaigns saw real progress resulting in important policy changes, and our research brought to light issues that will demand more attention in the year ahead.

Here are some of the biggest wins in our campaigns this year:

Ending driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving

  • In the wake of our December 2016 report Reinstating Common Sense: How driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving are falling out of favor, which received editorial support from The New York Times, lawmakers around the country took action. Mississippi, Florida, and Texas legislators introduced bills to reject the federal law that automatically suspends licenses for drug offenses unrelated to driving. The D.C. Council passed legislation repealing the law that automatically revokes or suspends the driver’s licenses of drug offenders. And the Virginia legislature passed a compromise law that exempted first-time marijuana offenders from automatic suspensions.
  • At the national level, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) introduced a bipartisan bill to repeal the federal transportation law requiring states to suspend driver’s licenses for drug offenses.

Protecting family visits from the video calling industry

  • In two major victories, California and Illinois passed legislation protecting traditional in-person visitation this year. Illinois’s law further mandates that video calling systems be provided at the “lowest possible cost” and prohibits authorities from profiting from these calls. New Jersey is currently considering a bill that would provide even more protections: capping video call costs, banning commissions, and banning fees for professional visits from lawyers and clergy. And Massachusetts’ House and Senate recently each passed criminal justice reform bills with amendments that would protect in-person visitation. The bills are now being reconciled before a final version eventually heads to the Governor’s desk.
  • In July, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017, which would require the FCC to regulate the use of video visitation and inmate calling services in correctional facilities, protecting in-person visitation and regulating the high costs of calling services.

Ending prison gerrymandering

  • For the first time, the New Jersey legislature passed a bill to end prison gerrymandering. Although it was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Christie, New Jersey is now poised to end prison gerrymandering under the new governor.

Other research

This year, we also published groundbreaking research calling attention to local jails, the political power of sheriffs, women’s incarceration, racial disparities in police use of force, the high cost of medical co-pays in prison, exploitative prison and jail services for phones, tablets, and money transfers, and much more. Our most notable reports include:

  • Following the Money of Mass Incarceration
    In a first-of-its-kind report, we aggregate economic data to offer a big picture view of who pays for – and who benefits from – mass incarceration. We find that our system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year. By identifying some of the stakeholders and quantifying their “stake” in maintaining the status quo, our data visualization shows how entrenched mass incarceration has become in our economy.
  • Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017
    We updated the most popular visual in the criminal justice reform movement to include 15 new data visuals, providing policymakers and the public a clear and accurate big-picture view of punishment in the U.S. While the White House attempts to move away from criminal justice reform, The Whole Pie offers the reassuring reminder that the bulk of incarceration flows from the policy choices made by state and local – not federal – governments.
  • Era of Mass Incarceration: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth
    The U.S. jail population tripled over the last three decades, and our first-of-its-kind report looks at state trends to answer the question: what’s actually driving jail growth? With over 150 state-level graphs and state-by-state comparisons, we expose the real drivers of jail growth: pre-trial detention and the renting of jail space to other authorities. Our report makes the case that state officials need to pay far more attention to local jails.
  • Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie
    With 219,000 women locked up in facilities operated by thousands of agencies, getting the big picture can be difficult. In our most recent report, we uncover where and why women fall under the control of our local, state, and federal systems. For the first time, we use our “whole pie” approach to give the public and policymakers the foundation to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.

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