Trends in State Criminal Justice Legislation

Article excerpt

Editor's note: The next article in this series will focus on legislative changes in the area of juvenile justice. It will appear in the June issue of Corrections Today.

Virtually every state passed some type of major criminal justice legislation in 1996. Activity focused on a number of issues, including sex offenders, sentencing, drug crimes, victims assistance and inmate litigation. In response to public demand and political pressure, the trend was toward longer sentences and more attention to victims.

Sex Offenders

Partly in response to public attention over Megan's Law, a number of states last year passed legislation addressing the registration of sex offenders, as well as public notification of their movements. All states now maintain sex offender registries and 11 states passed laws in 1996 requiting public notice of the presence of a sex offender in the community, bringing the total to 20 states. California took the sex offender legislation one step further, passing a law which would allow "chemical castration" upon a second conviction of a sex offense against a victim under age 13.


The trend in sentencing continued toward longer sentences with less opportunity for early release. Again, sex offenses, particularly those involving children, received significant attention. Fourteen states either created or increased penalties for sexual offenders. Truth-in-sentencing and habitual-offender legislation also passed in several states. At least three states added provisions which would allow juvenile records to affect criminal sentencing in adulthood. Changes also were made which addressed such items as habitual offenders, use of a firearm, misdemeanor sentencing if there is a record of previous felony convictions, repeat property offenders, firearms offenses, "enterprise corruption" and use of goodtime credits if an offender is returned to prison.

Specific Crimes

Anti-stalking legislation again was a focus in 1996. In addition, domestic violence and exploitation also received increased attention from state lawmakers.

Capital Crimes And Punishment

Aggravating circumstances to capital offenses were added in three states -- Florida, Indiana and Virginia. These included importation of large volumes of drugs; murder committed in the course of an abduction or robbery; murder of more than one person in three years; and torture or mutilation of a murder victim. Changes also were made which will expedite the carrying out of death sentences. These include representation and time limits in handing down death sentences, and requiring a defendant's written consent for certain appeals. Oklahoma now will allow family members of a murder victim to witness an execution, in person or by closed circuit broadcast.

Sentencing Commissions, Community Supervision

Four states either created or made changes in the powers of their respective sentencing commissions. Maryland and Massachusetts created such authorities. Community corrections and alternatives to incarceration were addressed in a number of states, with Oregon and Virginia adopting the most sweeping changes. California and Illinois made changes in the penalties for failure to comply with community sentence provisions. Three states -- Alaska, Illinois and Pennsylvania -- either created or modified their boot camp programs. Florida adopted a plan whereby offenders are subject to increased fines, some of which are earmarked for crime prevention. Maine created a unique pilot project of "group conferencing" where offenders will meet with victims, law enforcement and prosecutors on the impact of their crimes on society. The group then will determine the appropriate penalty.

Drug Crimes

Several new state laws address drug offenses by setting new penalties and encouraging treatment. These changes include incentives for treatment as well as mandatory participation in treatment programs. …