Nationwide Health and Public Safety Issues Top Legislative Priorities

Prison reform, police accountability, opioid addiction all on the legislative agenda.

In a recent article Governing took a look at the biggest issues legislatures are facing across the nation in 2016.

Many states are pursuing prison reform in an effort to reduce recidivism and save money.

In all, 30 states have passed laws similar to the one in Utah in an attempt to save money and reduce recidivism. Many of the others are expected to consider the issue in 2016. While the most common provisions across states focus on bringing punishments closer to fitting the crime, other proposals address performance incentive funding. In this approach, states offer to pay local probation and parole departments about half the savings accrued from avoiding re-incarceration for technical violations. The idea is to reduce the incentive for local law enforcement personnel to deal with difficult probationers simply by returning them to custody.

Maryland is one of the states currently working on prison reform. As previously reported on Conduit Street, over the past six months the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, with technical support from the Pew Center and Council of State Governments, performed extensive data gathering and held hours of subcommittee and stakeholder meetings to produce recommendations for the legislative session intended to reduce Maryland’s prison population, reduce needless correctional spending, and reinvest savings into more efficient programs that help improve criminal justice outcomes.

Another issue Governing reports as being debated locally and nationwide is police accountability.

Even though 35 states already have laws requiring some kind of bias training, legislatures in at least 14 states considered bills last year that would add to or expand upon those requirements. After the death of Eric Garner from a chokehold in New York, lawmakers in at least five states sought to limit the use of chokeholds during arrests. (Nevada, Tennessee and the District of Columbia already have regulations in place clarifying when a chokehold is appropriate.) Both Colorado and Maryland have enacted laws requiring police departments and sheriff’s offices to report every officer-involved death to a state agency.

As previously reported on Conduit Street the Public Safety and Policing Work Group, a bipartisan group is made up of a 10 senators and 10 delegates from across the state, has been meeting periodically over the interim to study issues including officer training, hiring practices, community relations and accountability. The work group will ultimately produce a report outlining recommendations that will likely lead policy and legislative activity during the 2016 legislative session.

The Governing article also notes that many states have adopted bills governing the use of police body cameras. This is another issue that Maryland has considered over the past year and continues to set guidance. The availability of recordings under the Maryland Public Information Act is a legislative initiative for MACo for the 2016 session.

The heroin and opioid crisis is another issue Governing reports as a top priority for states across the nation.

Rampant drug use is usually associated with large cities and certain low-income neighborhoods. But the current crisis cuts across economic classes and is forcing lawmakers to rethink their approach to regulating drugs. Conservatives who traditionally have maintained a hardline stance on drug offenders are adopting a more forgiving attitude. This past year, 11 states enacted Good Samaritan laws that exclude people from negative consequences if they call 911 to report an overdose. The scope of this new approach varies among the states, but essentially it means fewer people will be charged for low-level drug possession. In Lee County, Ill., a heroin hotbed southwest of Chicago, more than two dozen people have taken up the offer since the program was implemented in August. Ohio, another state particularly ravaged by the outbreak, is still considering a Samaritan law that advocates are hoping will pass in the coming months.

In December the Maryland Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force released a report outlining recommendations to fight addiction and reduce drug use and drug-related crime in the state. As reported on Conduit Street, through regional summits and meetings throughout the interim, the Task Force brought together a broad range of stakeholders to help develop a plan to deal with the state-wide crisis. The recommendations cover the topics of treatment and recovery services, law enforcement coordination, alternatives to incarceration, public awareness, and education.

For more information read the full article on Governing

Related coverage on Conduit Street:

Justice Reinvestment Group Holds Final Meeting on Reform Recommendations

Panel to Make Recommendation on Policing Reform in January

MACo Adopts 2016 Initiatives

Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force Releases Final Report