After decades of implementing harsh penalties for criminal misconduct, states have begun to recognize the need for deep reforms to their criminal justice systems. States are shifting resources from punishment to diversion and rehabilitation. States are reevaluating mandatory minimum sentences and harsh drug penalties. States are also recognizing systemic racism and its impact on criminal justice outcomes.
As the chief law enforcement and/or legal officers in their states, attorneys general are important advocates for criminal justice reform. Attorneys general promote legislative change, set prosecutorial priorities, investigate systemic bias in police departments and court systems, and challenge federal rules that require reform.
Below are examples of actions by attorneys general to advance criminal justice reform:
- Maryland AG Brian Frosh launched the Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force to help those in low income communities and communities of color in obtaining access to justice during the pandemic.
- A coalition of 18 AGs urged Congress to expand federal law to give attorneys general clear statutory authority to investigate patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing.
- Virginia AG Mark Herring called for an expanded “Clean Slate” law to ensure an easier process and expanded opportunities for Virginians to move beyond the stigma of a criminal conviction, especially those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.
- Delaware AG Kathy Jennings announced more than 30 changes to state Department of Justice internal protocols and positions, included changes to sentencing, bail, pleas, probation violations, children, and expungements.
- Nevada AG Aaron Ford outlined data-driven policy changes for his office in an internal April 2019 memo, including changes to bail requests for misdemeanors and directives that prosecutors consider alternatives to pretrial incarceration. The memo also recommends diverting those suffering from substance abuse away from incarceration for misdemeanors and nonviolent or low-level offenses.
- A coalition of 37 AGs sent a letter of support to Congress for the First Step Act, which helped reduce federal drug sentences and will help end mass incarceration.
- Minnesota AG Keith Ellison worked with the state’s Department of Public Safety to release 28 recommendations and 33 action steps aimed at reducing deadly force encounters with law enforcement.
- California AG Xavier Becerra filed a brief in the California Supreme Court opposing unaffordable bail for non-dangerous defendants awaiting trial.
- Ohio AG David Yost called on the Ohio legislature to ban police chokeholds and to reform police misconduct investigations to ensure greater accountability.
- A coalition of 14 AGs called for the United States Attorney General to rescind harsh sentencing guidance for federal prosecutors that was neither smart on crime nor fair to offenders, their families, and their communities.
- Rhode Island AG Peter Neronha sponsored legislation that would grant his office expanded authority to review and investigate police misconduct.
- New York AG Letitia James called on the state legislature to support a provision in a marijuana legalization package that would expunge records for arrest, detention, or conviction of marijuana-related possession.