Key Legislative Changes in Sentencing Policy

Written by Scott J. Sheely on Sunday - March 13, 2011.

New York:  Recently, the Center on Sentencing and Corrections released a report entitled "Criminal Justice Trends: Key Legislative Changes in Sentencing Policy, 2001-2010".  This report reviews state sentencing policy from 2001 through 2010. The beginning and end of this period coincided with economic recessions and spikes in criminal justice reform legislation.  For a downloadable copy of the  report, click here.

The past decade marks a time of significant change in how states approach their criminal sentencing policies. The "tough on crime" political mantra that drove sentencing legislation 30 years ago has transformed into talk of being "smart on crime," with increasing reliance on research and data to drive and substantiate policy decisions. This willingness to adopt less punitive, more rational sentencing policies is driven, in part, by budget concerns that have emerged and remained prominent in recent years.

During this roughly 10-year period, three distinct themes in state sentencing legislation emerge:

  • States redefined and reclassified criminal offenses, often resulting in a reduction in offense severity and sentence length.
  • States strengthened alternatives to incarceration, with an emphasis on increasing investment in substance use treatment, specialty courts, and community supervision.
  • States took steps to reduce prison terms, from rolling back mandatory minimum sentences to enhancing mechanisms designed to accelerate sentence completion.

Under these overarching themes, the report identifies and discusses more than 55 pieces of state legislation that chronicle the decade's most important sentencing reform policies.