Restoring Balance to Criminal Laws

The Problem

Police and prosecutors are often left to enforce overly harsh laws, resulting in too many people arrested and imprisoned for too long. The number of acts considered crimes in the United States has grown significantly since the 1970s. In other circumstances, existing criminal penalties were increased so that the punishment no longer fits the crime. As a result, jails and courts are flooded daily with people accused of minor offenses. In many states, nonviolent and non-serious crimes, such as shoplifting or writing a bad check, became felonies. The time and resources spent focusing on low-level offenses takes away from handling and preventing more serious and violent crimes. Once in the system, most people enter a cycle of repeat incarceration in which youthful petty offenders end up in jail or prison multiple times. Each year, 600,000 people leave prison trying to succeed in their old neighborhoods, two-thirds of whom will be rearrested within three years.

Our Solution

Law Enforcement Leaders members seek to restore balance to our criminal laws through efforts such as the reclassification of crimes. We urge Congress and state legislatures to take up changes to reclassify nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors or eliminate petty or duplicative offenses from criminal codes, where appropriate. We will identify and speak out against laws mandating overly harsh punishments. With such steps, police and prosecutors can hold people accountable for breaking the law in a fair and effective way. With proportional sentences, we can reduce both sentence lengths and the possibility of repeat crimes, breaking the cycle of incarceration for low-level offenders, and focus our resources on individuals who have committed serious and violent crimes.


Some states have enacted reforms to this effect and achieved success:

  • Georgia. In the 1990s, the Georgia General Assembly enacted strict sentencing laws to combat crime rates. As a result, the state’s prison population nearly doubled over for the next two decades. By 2011, Georgia had the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country, with 1 in 70 adults behind bars. To curb this growth, the legislature passed House Bill 1176 in 2012. The law increased the felony threshold for shoplifting from $300 to $500 and for most other theft crimes to $1,500. It is projected to save taxpayers $264 million by 2017. Since its passage, Georgia continues to enjoy historically low crime rates.
  • California. California has long struggled with an unsustainable prison population. Between 1975 and 2006, its prison population increased eightfold and its jail populations more than tripled. In 2014, voters passed Proposition 47 to reduce the state’s prison populations and better invest in public safety. The ballot initiative reclassified several nonviolent felonies – such as drug possession, writing a bad check, petty theft, and receiving stolen property – as misdemeanors. It also required that government spend those savings on education and crime prevention programs.