State Legislative Affairs Update

State Legislative Affairs Update

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

DNA Databases

Nation: States Seek to Expand DNA Databases to Include Arrestees, Minor Offenders
Maryland, South Carolina, and New Jersey are seeking to pass or have recently approved legislation to expand their DNA databases. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed SB 211 on May 13, 2008, to grant the state the power to collect DNA samples from persons charged with certain violent crimes. The genetic information will only be kept on file if a person is convicted. Many critics of the bill argue that the new law violates citizens’ fundamental civil rights. Caroline Frederickson, with the ACLU, said, “That is your genetic material that gives clues to your health, any type of genetic marker, your predisposition to disease, family history, what you look like potentially, all sorts of information is in there.” In addition, some fear that this information could be seriously abused by encouraging racial profiling. (“Bills to Allow DNA Samples, Boost BRAC Development Signed,” Maryland Daily Record, May 13, 2008; “MD Expands DNA Database,” Delmarva 47 News -WMDT, May 13, 2008)

In South Carolina, those charged with a felony will have to submit a DNA sample according to SB 890, which was approved May 13, 2008, by the House Judiciary Committee. The bill states that “adults charged with crimes punishable by at least five years in prison, or charged with eavesdropping, peeping or stalking, must submit saliva or tissue samples for a state DNA database” upon arrest. (“House panel approves bill that OKs DNA samples after arrests,” Aiken Standard, May 14, 2008) A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford (R) last year, but it has now been amended to prohibit DNA sampling of juveniles without a court order and limit the sharing of DNA information to U.S. law enforcement. The Senate approved the bill in January and it will now head to the House floor for approval. (“Felons, peeping toms would have to submit DNA,” The Politics Today, May 13, 2008)

New Jersey lawmakers are trying to expand their DNA database even further. The Senate’s Law and Public Safety and Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved SB 514 on May 15, 2008. The bill would require people found guilty of “disorderly persons offenses” to give DNA samples to the state. This includes those found guilty of crimes such as shoplifting and vandalism. One sponsor of the bill, Sen. Nicholas Sacco, said, “By expanding it to include those convicted of disorderly persons offenses, we can further bolster the database and provide investigators with new leads into currently unsolvable cases. This technology has made our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer.” However, there are critics of the bill as well, including the executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, Deborah Jacobs. She worries about the effect this bill will have on free speech. The bill will now move to the full Senate to be heard. (“Panel backs DNA sampling in minor offenses,”, May 16, 2008)


New Jersey: Bill Seeks to Limit Criminal History Information Access
New Jersey Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith is trying to help ex-offenders who want to become members of the workforce again. On May 20, 2008, he introduced AB 2735, which would prohibit the “State Bureau of Identification from providing criminal history background information to employers if the crime is more than seven years old, of the third degree or less, and the person has not committed another criminal offense within seven years.” It is a way to both stimulate employment and level the playing field according to Smith. (“Smith: Limit life of crime data for some,” The Jersey Journal, May 20, 2008)

Rhode Island: Legislation Would Require Destruction of Deferred Sentence Records
The Rhode Island House recently passed HB 7583, which would require the destruction of “records of criminal cases in which the accused was given a deferred sentence, usually in exchange for sparing the state a trial by pleading no contest or guilty to a crime.” (“House OKs bill to destroy criminal records,” The Providence Journal, May 16, 2008) At the end of the deferral period, all records would be destroyed, no matter how serious the crime or criminal history of the offender.

Proponents argue that the bill would allow certain people who may have made mistakes in their past to move on with their lives, especially in terms of their careers and education. “Deferred sentences have always been subject to expungement. We’re just going back to the old system to help young kids, to help our constituents’ families when they have a problem … so that we don’t waste or ruin a college career which will otherwise be fruitful,” said one of the co-sponsors, lawyer-legislator Nicholas Mattiello. However, opponents are afraid that the bill goes too far in that it is not limited to nonviolent crimes by first-time offenders. Some also worry about the bill’s impact on the freedom of the press to print information about an offender’s criminal history. House Minority Leader Robert A. Watson said during an earlier debate, “I mean, as much as I like redemption Mr. Speaker, I also have a belief in freedom of the press. I also have a belief in the freedom of information and a knowledge of history and you don’t rewrite history.” The bill will now head to the Senate. (“Questions halt House’s vote on expungment bill,” The Providence Journal, May 14, 2008)

Innocence Issues

New York: State Bar Takes on Wrongful Convictions
The New York State Bar Association has decided to investigate the problem of wrongful convictions. The newly appointed president of the association, Bernice Leber, put together a task force of 22 “professors, former judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others to identify rules, procedures and statutes contributing to the problem.” According to Leber, “The task force will examine the process all along the line, from the innocent person’s arrest to interrogation of witnesses, the evidence collected, and everything that happens up to the moment of indictment.” Barry Kamins, past president of the New York City Bar Association, will chair the task force. NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer has been appointed to serve on the task force. The goal will be to analyze every reported New York case statewide that led to a wrongful conviction and come up with a final report with proposed reforms. The report is due in April 2009. (“Bar task force to study wrongful convictions in NY,” Newsday, June 4, 2008)

Texas: Wrongful Convictions Under Scrutiny by Legislators, New Judicial Integrity Unit
In May, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) brought together criminal justice experts, legislators, and exonerees for an Innocence Roundtable summit that was held in the Texas Capitol. Nine exonerated men urged lawmakers to do something about wrongful convictions in Texas. Sen. Ellis described his motivation for putting the summit together by noting, “Clearly there is a need to restore confidence in the criminal justice system in Texas. I’m asking that people look at the large number of exonerations and show some leadership and use the moral authority of their good offices to move this process forward.” Ellis sponsored legislation in 2007 that would create a nine-member Innocence Commission, but it failed to pass.

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In response to the summit, the state’s top jurists — Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — publicly supported the creation of a statewide Innocence Commission to investigate wrongful convictions and recommend criminal justice reforms. The governor, Rick Perry, believes the Commission is a “needless addition to state bureaucracy.”

On June 4, 2008, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals announced it would create a 12-member Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit to address various causes of wrongful convictions. The unit will include members of the Texas Legislature, judges, district attorneys and criminal defense attorneys. Judge Barbara Hervey said, “This is a call to action to address the growing concerns with our criminal justice system. Although we applaud all previous studies and dialogue, it is now time to act and move for reform.” (“Texas’ top criminal court creates unit to study justice system,” (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram, June 4, 2008; “Perry says innocence commission needless,” WorldNow and KNVA, May 20, 2008; “Top Texas jurists Support Idea of Innocence Commission,” (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram, May 18, 2008)

Mental Health

Minnesota: New Law Seeks Diversion for Veterans With PTSD
Minnesota recently became the second state (California was the first) to pass a bill that will reduce the sentences for veterans facing criminal prosecution who suffer from mental health problems related to their time in combat. The legislation is part of the Omnibus Public Safety Bill (HF 2996) that Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) signed on May 12, 2008. Specifically, the bill requires courts to find out whether a defendant is a veteran. Attorneys are then permitted to order a psychological evaluation. If the veteran does have some kind of combat-related mental illness, the court is required to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs so that the sentence will incorporate treatment.

Brock Hunter, a veteran and current legislative chair of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, co-wrote the bill. He noted, “I really do believe the judges will consider this, and use it as a condition of probation. … Instead of seeking therapy, many veterans suffering from mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder turn to alcohol and drugs to deal with their problems.” In 2006, 25 percent of Minnesota’s male homeless population were veterans and more than half of them were considered seriously mentally ill. (“Minnesota becomes second state to offer treatment to veterans Who Commit Crimes,” City Pages, May 21, 2008)

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Racial Disparities

Iowa: New Law Requires ‘Minority Impact Statements’ For Future Criminal Justice Legislation
On April 17, Gov. Chet Culver (D) signed the nation’s first law to require legislation to be analyzed to determine how it might impact racial and ethnic minorities. HF 2393 requires a “Minority Impact Statement” to be developed for “any legislation related to a public offense, sentencing, or parole and probation procedures.” The legislation also requires any grant application from a state agency to include such a statement. The bipartisan legislation passed the House of Representatives unanimously and the Senate by a vote of 47-2.

The legislation was inspired by the fact that Iowa leads the nation in racial disparities in its prison population — 2 percent of the state population is African-American, while 24 percent of its prison population is African-American. Racial disparities in school suspensions and juvenile detention exist as well — 5 percent of the school population is African-American, but 22 percent of suspensions or expulsions involve African-Americans. Nearly 40 percent of juveniles in detention are racial minorities, with two-thirds of those being African-American.

Gov. Culver said of the legislation, “[W]hen members of the General Assembly and executive branch are considering legislation of this nature, we will now be able to do so, with a clearer understanding of its potential effects — positive and negative — on Iowa’s minority communities. Just as Fiscal Impact Statements must follow any proposed legislation related to state expenditures … Minority Impact Statements will serve as an essential tool for those in government — and the public — as we propose, develop, and debate policies for the future of our state.” (“Governor Culver Signs Minority Impact Statement Bill Into Law,” Press Release, April 17, 2008)
Wisconsin: Governor Signs Executive Order to Reduce Racial Disparities in Justice System

Gov. Jim Doyle (D) issued an executive order on May 13 to reduce racial disparities in his state’s criminal justice system, and he “called for swift action to implement specific recommendations presented by his Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System.” The commission issued its extensive recommendations in February.

The governor’s Executive Order #251 establishes a four-person Racial Disparities Oversight Commission to “exercise oversight and advocacy concerning programs and policies to reduce disparate treatment of people of color across the spectrum of the criminal justice system.” One member of the commission will be Jennifer Bias from the Office of the Wisconsin State Defender. The executive order also directs: state agencies to use information technologies to track and analyze data for signs of racial disparities; the Office of Justice Assistance to work with the judiciary, Department of Justice, law enforcement agencies, and educational institutions to provide training on recognizing and eliminating racial disparities; and the Department of Corrections to expand re-entry programs and ensure fairness in probation and parole revocation. (“Gov. Doyle Announces Steps to Reduce Racial Disparities,” Press Release, May 13, 2008)

The final report of Gov. Jim Doyle’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System is online at:

Sentencing Reform And Re-entry

Michigan: Sentencing Reform, Improved Re-entry Sought by Governor, Local Governments
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) recently recommended sentencing reforms in order to cut prison spending, lock up fewer people, and keep released inmates from returning to prison. She, along with leaders in the legislature, has agreed to work with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments to reach these goals. The Justice Center is a national, non-profit organization that assists policymakers by providing “practical, nonpartisan advice and consensus-driven strategies, informed by available evidence.” The state has already set up the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, which offers support services for released inmates. In order to fund the prisoner re-entry initiative and lower the number of people in prison, Gov. Granholm is recommending $110 million be set aside in her budget proposal. Currently, the state’s corrections system consumes a fifth of the general fund budget of more than $9.8 billion. (“Michigan must escape from rising prison costs,” The Detroit News, April 17, 2008)

The town of Battle Creek, Mich., has taken a step in this direction as well. On June 3, 2008, the Battle Creek Commission voted, 7-2, to adopt a new policy that requires “companies with 15 or more employees bidding on city contracts worth more than $10,000 to prove they have no policy preventing a felon from being considered for employment.” A committee has been working with the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative on felon employment policies in order to help their residents with felony records to move on with their lives. Sara Wallace of the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, said, “While the policy won’t effect all employers in Battle Creek, it is important for the city to forge ahead and take an all-important first step. This is just a start. We’ve got to start somewhere.” Many of the commissioners hope that other businesses and the community will follow this lead in ending discrimination against ex-offenders. (“City OKs Felon Job Policy,” Battle Creek Enquirer, June 4, 2008)

More on the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center is online at