Posted on June 12, 2024

Red States Are Reversing Criminal Justice Reform

C.J. Ciaramella, Reason, June 6, 2024

It was impossible to avoid the “strange bedfellows” cliché when reading about the criminal justice reform movement in the 2010s. Conservatives and evangelicals worked alongside bleeding-heart liberals and civil libertarians to fix what they all 
(at the time) agreed were unjust prison sentences and punitive policies.

Fast-forward a decade, and the bipartisan sleepovers are over. Most of the same advocate groups are still lobbying for reform—and notching victories in some states—but the broad-based path for criminal justice reform bills has narrowed or altogether disappeared in other places.

Claiming to be responding to rising crime and the excesses of progressive reformers, several Republican-controlled state legislatures have not only reversed progress but also rolled back key reforms: increasing prison sentences, limiting parole and probation, restricting charities that pay bail for offenders, curtailing the discretion of local district attorneys, and gutting civilian police oversight boards.

Louisiana is a particularly stark example of this backlash. It was one of many conservative-leaning states that passed bipartisan criminal justice reforms in the 2010s as the cost of their prison systems exploded. At the time, the Pelican State’s incarceration rate was nearly more than double the rest of the country’s, making it the incarceration capital of the world.

In 2017, the Louisiana Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a plan to reduce incarceration costs by focusing on keeping violent offenders in prison rather than nonviolent ones. (The latter were a major contributor to the state’s staggering incarceration rate.) A February 2024 report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor (LLA) found that, despite a flawed rollout, the JRI largely worked—reducing the overall prison population while increasing the percentage of inmates incarcerated for violent offenses. It also saved Louisiana $152.7 million in prison costs.

Despite the initiative’s clear success, newly sworn-in Republican Gov. Jeff Landry convened a special session of the state Legislature earlier this year that passed a criminal justice package reversing many of the JRI’s reforms.


Kentucky’s trajectory is similar. The Safer Kentucky Act, enacted after the Legislature overturned Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto, raises the criminal penalties for more than two dozen offenses and creates a three-strikes provision mandating life sentences without parole for those convicted of three violent felonies. It also outlaws street camping and gives property owners the right to use physical force against someone illegally camping on their property, if the person has been warned by the owner.


Even some Democratic-controlled states are walking back criminal justice reforms. In March the Oregon Legislature recriminalized drugs, reversing a 2020 ballot measure passed by voters. Drug warriors and conservative think tanks touted Oregon’s decriminalization failure as proof that legalization leads to chaos. {snip}