Despite heightened partisan rhetoric, a lack of action at the federal level, and continued concern around crime in many jurisdictions, the bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform remained strong in 2023. In particular, states across the country, including many traditionally conservative strongholds, passed historic legislation to make the system smarter and fairer.
Utah, for example, may be known for its deserts, but it has become fertile ground for reform. In 2023, the state legislature established itself as a national leader when it passed a sweeping bipartisan bill aimed at improving police accountability.
The law includes a number of important provisions. It requires that police departments investigate new applicants for employment issues at previous departments like inappropriate shootings and use of force. It also creates an early intervention system for police officers, with data tracking on performance problems so that departments can address issues — for example incidents that result in injuries — before they escalate. Finally, the bill allows the state’s certification board to discipline police chiefs and sheriffs if they fail to report bad actors.
The law received bipartisan support, with sponsorship from Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla and Republican Rep. Ryan Wilcox, and it passed unanimously before being signed by Republican Gov. Spencer Cox during the 2023 legislative session.
“Overarching this reform is the desire to uphold good police officers,” says Connor Boyack, founder and president of Libertas Institute, a right-leaning Utah think tank that supported the police accountability legislation. “The idea is that we can champion and support good officers by creating a system that allows us to weed out the bad apples so the good apples can thrive and succeed in the profession and serve their community.”
These changes came about in part because residents and advocates in the Beehive State have been industrious when it comes to building a bipartisan coalition for reform, working with a Republican supermajority in the state legislature.
For more than a decade, Libertas Institute has been engaging with a range of partners, including regularly meeting with stakeholders such as the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the defense attorneys association, and law enforcement agencies.
“Building that coalition was critical to passing this bill,” says Boyack. “Over the years, we have been able to get a lot of legislators interested in sponsoring bills and we have helped cultivate a desire in our legislature for data driven policies, transparency, and accountability.”
The law’s passage makes Utah one in a growing cohort of states — from Mississippi to Nevada, Nebraska, and North Carolina — to pass criminal justice reforms in 2023.
“What’s really important about these victories is that they demonstrate a bipartisan approach to designing policies that tackle the country’s criminal justice needs,” says Destiny Carter, advocacy manager for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “Even as we hear narratives about crime going up and criminal justice policy not being the best that it can be, there are a multitude of avenues available to states to support people in the system while also holding them accountable.”
Reforming public defense
This past year, several states have focused on the front end of the justice system, overhauling broken policies for public defense.
In April, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court adopted a rule change saying that people who cannot afford an attorney must always be provided one before an indictment. The change is meant to address the state’s notoriously dysfunctional public defense system, under which people often sit in jail for months, or even years, before receiving a court date. Mississippi has the highest incarceration rate in the country.
The new rule was proposed to the court by Empower Mississippi, a conservative advocacy organization that partnered with a broad coalition of attorneys and policy advocates to lobby for its adoption.
Grant Callen, founder and CEO of Empower Mississippi, says the new rule aims to protect rights and dignity, not to mention address the system’s high costs.
“From a constitutional standpoint, the Sixth Amendment grants all citizens the right to counsel, and it’s critical that that be effective counsel, so that people accused of crimes are guaranteed a fair process,” Callen says. “We are paying district attorneys to prosecute those who are accused, but the system set up to defend people who can’t afford an attorney has not been well designed.”
Legal experts note that the new rule is a promising first step, although it does not change the flat-fee system of paying public defenders, which would improve their salaries and incentives to spend time on defendants’ cases — a step that Oregon took when it overhauled its public defender system earlier this year.
“It’s encouraging that our Supreme Court saw the need to adopt the motion, and that leaders in our state are starting down a path to improve and reform our justice system,” Callen says. “But we’ve barely scratched the surface of the work that needs to be done, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a sustained effort.”
Eliminating unfair fees
Other states — including Texas, Arizona, and Illinois — took measures to eliminate fees in the justice system, which disproportionately impact low-income people of color and their families. Nevada passed a unique bipartisan bill that aimed to rein in the cost of incarceration by addressing fees, kickbacks, and upcharges that come with being incarcerated or under community supervision.
It started as a “kitchen sink” bill that sought to abolish every fee, explains Nick Shepack, Nevada state deputy director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC). Ultimately, legislators narrowed it down to what families found most important. The final law, signed by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo: ends medical copays, making doctor and emergency visits free; ends room and board fees; eliminates all markups on hygiene items in the commissary; and ends monetary limitations on how much an incarcerated person can spend on commissary.
“The more fees you add onto the limited finances of an incarcerated person,” Shepack says, “the less likely they are to get these necessary items.” He notes that fees and costs often fall to the family members of people who are incarcerated, forming a kind of backdoor tax on low-income people.
To advance the bill, FFJC worked with Return Strong, a local grassroots collective of families of incarcerated people. While FFJC conducted research — including making public records requests and analyzing corrections budget data — Return Strong surveyed more than 500 incarcerated people about conditions inside and brought families to testify before the Nevada state legislature.
Jodi Hocking, founder and executive director of Return Strong, says the testimony helped legislators understand the damaging impact of fees on families and communities.
“We elevated the silenced voices of people who are incarcerated,” Hocking says. “We have developed an army of people who never spoke up, who never had a voice, who never thought that they could make a change before. And it won’t stop at fines and fees.”
Changing sentencing policy
In the end, addressing America’s high incarceration rate will require changing sentencing laws, experts say. This year, Nebraska did just that, passing a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill that changed sentencing practices at a moment when the prison population was growing, facilities were overcrowded, and parole grant rates were down.
The bill takes a number of strong steps, including expanding parole eligibility and reducing mandatory minimums for people with certain criminal histories from ten years to three. It also requires additional problem-solving courts and creates new access to telehealth services for people with behavioral health issues.
The national Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) was instrumental in supporting the legislation in Nebraska. Former Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, invited the organization as a researcher and thought partner in developing policies to address projected prison growth. CJI provided technical assistance to a task force, sharing examples of policies from other states and later running prison population projections during the legislative session. The bipartisan coalition behind the bill included local reentry groups, formerly incarcerated people, victims rights groups, behavioral health providers, and law enforcement organizations.
“The governor spent a lot of time working with people from across the aisle to find common ground,” says Molly Robustelli, a manager at CJI. “At the time, a lot of people across the country were distancing themselves from criminal justice reform, particularly sentencing reform. Nebraska leaders had hard conversations, and the fact that both sides of the aisle were willing to work together to find consensus and get law enforcement on board — that makes Nebraska really unique and this effort particularly worth celebrating.”
Some states have found different methods to extend early release to people who are incarcerated. In North Carolina, a state budget deal created new opportunities for medical release in an effort to address the crisis of a “graying” prison population — and its high cost to the public.
The change in North Carolina reduces the age of eligibility for release by a full decade, from 65 to 55, recognizing research that identifies 55 as geriatric based on the premature aging associated with incarceration. At that age, people pose the lowest statistical risk of committing another offense after release.
“People age approximately three times faster in prison,” says Maria Goellner, director of state policy at FAMM (formerly Families Against Mandatory Minimums), a national organization that supported the budget deal. “This policy brings geriatric release more in line with what the actual correctional standard is, so it’s a great change.”
The conversation around the policy change began with Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR), a local organization that promotes data-driven solutions to improve community safety and save costs in the system.
“We really don’t have a choice as to whether or not we act with regard to incarceration,” says Tarrah Callahan, founder and executive director of CCJR. “It’s imperative that we look at the people who are in prison and assess whether their incarceration is still necessary to protect public safety.”
CCJR worked with the Wilson Center at Duke University and FAMM to draft policy, alongside a broad bipartisan coalition that included the state chapter of the ACLU, Disability Rights North Carolina, and the North Carolina Justice Center. FAMM provided perspective on national criteria for medical release and drafted bill language.
According to FAMM, around 2,000 people currently incarcerated in North Carolina will be newly eligible for release based on age.
“Most Americans, regardless of political party, don’t want to be incarcerating people who pose a low risk,” Goellner says. “It’s about making sure that lawmakers see what the polling shows — that 70% of Americans across political lines support safe compassionate release programs.”
Many advocates are committed to driving criminal justice reform into the coming legislative sessions, especially in conservative states that have, in the past, been cautious about reining in the powers of the justice system.
Connor Boyack, of Libertas Institute, is buoyed by the success of police accountability measures in Utah. Just a few years ago, he recalls, his work with the ACLU drew stunned remarks from conservative friends. Today, however, such alliances have become more commonplace where criminal justice reform is concerned.
“What gives me heart is seeing a bill like ours pass unanimously — and that, across the country, elected officials can see Utah as being a leader on this issue.” Boyack says. “Republicans and Democrats and everybody in between recognize that we need solutions like this in the criminal justice system.”