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Look Ahead

5 Things to Watch in Criminal Justice in 2023

With the mid-term elections in the rearview mirror, 2023 is shaping up to be a pivotal year in the struggle to create a more just, fair, and accountable criminal justice system.

With the mid-term elections over and a year before the 2024 primaries begin, 2023 represents a window of opportunity for evidence-based criminal justice reform to flourish. Already, there is evidence that media and political misinformation around crime has started to abate. For instance, crime coverage on one cable news channel dropped by more than 60% from the week before the mid-terms to the week after. Here are five criminal justice reform efforts and strategies to look out for in 2023.

#1 Bipartisan federal action

prison corridor
In 2019, 81 percent of defendants convicted of federal crack cocaine distribution were Black. (Getty Images)

With divided control of Congress comes both an opportunity and imperative for the bipartisan coalition around criminal justice reform. While ultimately unsuccessful, there was an intense effort at the end of 2022 to pass the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, which would have ended the racially inequitable sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine under federal law. On a brighter note, in December 2022 the bipartisan Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act was passed by Congress. The Act, which was backed by the National Sheriffs’ Association and numerous community organizations, will allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate intrastate phone rates and charges in correctional facilities to ensure that incarcerated people are not charged extortionary fees to stay in touch with their loved ones. 

Other laws that may be considered by Congress this year include:

  • The Fresh Start Act: a bipartisan bill that would provide funding to states for automated record expungement efforts.
  • The Clean Slate Act: a bipartisan bill that would automatically seal records for certain federal offenses, including less serious drug charges.
  • The Driving for Opportunity Act: a bipartisan bill that would change federal law to incentivize, rather than disincentivize, states to not suspend an individual’s driver’s license for unpaid fines and fees.
  • The Federal Prisons Oversight Act: a bipartisan bill that would create an oversight department with the authority to conduct and resolve investigations.

Related: Law Enforcement and Activists Unite Behind EQUAL Act

#2 First full year of the End Justice Fees campaign

Studies show that fines and fees punish low-income people disproportionately and can have a harmful cascading effect on people’s lives, driving them into debt, leading to driver’s license suspensions that can compromise their ability to retain work, and keeping them entangled with the justice system. (Getty Images)

In October 2022, a bipartisan coalition led by the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC), Americans for Prosperity, and the ACLU launched the End Justice Fees campaign – the first national campaign working to eliminate fees in the justice system and discharge their associated debt. Building off successful efforts to eliminate various fees in many states and localities, the End Justice Fees campaign aims to take this reform national by providing lawmakers and advocates around the country with the tools they need to abolish this counterproductive, inefficient, and impoverishing practice.

Related: New Report Challenges the Use of Fines and Fees as a Revenue Source

#3 The end of cash bail in Illinois?

Flanked by lawmakers and supporters, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a sweeping criminal justice reform bill into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University Feb. 22, 2021. The bill’s Pretrial Fairness Act completely eliminates cash bail in Illinois in an effort to jail fewer people overall and create greater equity in pretrial detention. (Brian Cassella/​Chicago Tribune via AP)

On January 1, 2023, Illinois was supposed to become the first state to abolish cash bail. However, hours before it was meant to take effect, the Illinois Supreme Court halted implementation until it can adjudicate a pending legal case against the new law. Despite being a lightning rod for criticism and misinformation during the mid-term campaign, the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) provisions of the SAFE‑T Act would make Illinois a national trailblazer in the effort to ensure pretrial detention is based on the likelihood to avoid rearrest and make trial dates, rather than simply the ability to afford cash bail. Lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates around the country will be eagerly watching the Illinois Supreme Court’s final decision and the potential rollout of the PFA. If the law is implemented and works as it has in other places, most notably New Jersey (which was a model for the PFA), thousands of Illinois residents will be allowed to return to their homes, jobs, and neighborhoods before trial, providing considerable individual, family, and societal benefits while preserving community safety. 

Related: Illinois Prepares for Historic Abolition of Cash Bail

#4 Addressing violence and ensuring community safety

Bullet holes in window with skyline in background
(maybefalse/​Getty Images)

Going into 2023, many U.S. cities are still experiencing heightened rates of community violence when compared with the years immediately preceding the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to develop and implement an appropriate response and save lives, it is imperative that lawmakers, community groups, and city official have evidence on where and why violence is occurring. In 2023, a new center at the University of Maryland, supported by Arnold Ventures, will start to gather this information, synthesize it, and make it available to local leaders and the general public. The Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction, led by Thomas Abt, author of Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Street, will provide practical, evidence-driven suggestions on how to align and apply a range of anti-violence strategies in specific jurisdictions. 

Related: The U.S. Knows How to Reduce Crime

#5 Integrating criminal justice and drug reform

OK Capitol Building
(4nadia/​Getty Images) 

In March 2023, Oklahomans will vote on whether to legalize marijuana in a special election. Regardless of the result, SQ 820 is a strong model of how to integrate sentencing, supervision, and reintegration changes into marijuana reform that could be replicated in future drug legalization efforts around the country. In particular, the referendum would eliminate certain criminal penalties for marijuana and allow those with pre-existing marijuana convictions to be re-sentenced and/​or released from incarceration. It would also expunge records related to past marijuana convictions, prohibit parole revocation for marijuana use, stop police from using marijuana as a pretext for searches, detainment, or arrest, prevent the denial of parental visitation or custody for marijuana use, allow marijuana users to access public assistance benefits, and provide resources to schools so that they can promote alternatives to suspension or expulsion for students caught with marijuana.