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How 2 state legislatures are quietly making America a better place

Not all the action is happening in Congress.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Between January 1 and July 31 this year, the state of New Jersey has seen its pretrial jail population — the number of people sitting in detention, awaiting trial, without having been convicted of a crime — fall by 15.8 percent.

That’s an astonishing drop in under a year. It means that 2,167 fewer people were in pretrial detention on July 31, 2017, than were at the same time in 2016. That’s more than 2,000 people who have not been convicted of any wrongdoing, and who get to live at home with their families rather than in a jail cell, who stand a better chance of keeping their jobs and their kids, whose lives aren’t unnecessarily disrupted so they can be locked in a cage.

And as this happened, New Jersey’s crime rate actually fell. Violent crime in January through August 2017 was 16.7 percent lower than the same period of 2016. Murder fell by 28.6 percent, assault by 13.3 percent, robbery by 22 percent. By contrast, violent crime only fell 4.3 percent in 2016, and didn’t budge in 2015. It’s far too soon to say if bail reform contributed to the big year-to-year drop. But at the very least, bail reform hasn’t been accompanied with some dramatic increase in danger or crime. More people are free, and more people are safe.

Pre-trial detention trends in New Jersey New Jersey Judiciary

The jail trends are the result of sweeping bail reforms adopted by the New Jersey state legislature, with the help of a voter-approved constitutional amendment, in 2014. The reforms effectively abolish cash bail: the practice of only letting people out of pretrial detention if they are financially capable to pay the state (or, more often, a bail bondsman) to release them. In its place, judges now decide which defendants to detain and which to release based on a variety of factors, including quantitative “public safety assessment scores” based on a defendant’s criminal history and past record of appearing in court.

The result is that thousands of people who’d otherwise be in jail for being poor are free, and courts are able to detain wealthy people who could’ve been let free via bail but are now judged too dangerous for release.

The embarrassing part? I didn’t know about most of this until I moved to New Jersey in August. What coverage I saw tended to focus on convicted murderer and racial slur enthusiast Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman’s opposition to the law (which should, if anything, make you support it more). I was too focused on fights in DC around health care and the fate of deportation relief, and not keeping an eye on one state’s criminal justice reforms. Those national fights are really important; I would never diminish them for a second. Their human stakes are immense.

But so are those of the New Jersey reforms. Thousands of people being uncaged is a cause for national celebration, not just parochial interest.

It’s easy to pay lip service to the fact that some of the most important government decisions are made at the state, not federal, level. But three cases in New Jersey and California, either being implemented or passed this year, really underline the point. There’s a real possibility, especially if Republican health care efforts fail, that the most significant changes in public policy in the United States this year in terms of human impact will have been caused by state legislatures, not Congress or President Trump.

California’s changes are of national importance

As Congress geared up for the latest effort to repeal Obamacare, the California state legislature passed a package of bills to address its housing crisis. This isn’t just a California concern. As my colleague Matt Yglesias has repeatedly explained, the high cost of living in America’s most productive regions (like Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, but also New York, DC, and Boston) hurts the American economy as a whole.

The University of Chicago’s Chang-Tai Hsieh and UC Berkeley’s Enrico Moretti estimate that restrictions on building housing cut US economic growth in half from 1964 to 2009. Another paper of theirs estimates that if high-productivity cities like San Francisco and San Jose were to only restrict housing development as much as the typical city — and not the crazy amount they do restrict it — US GDP would grow 9.5 percent. Those are bananas numbers, and suggest that removing barriers to development in California and other rich areas is of huge national importance.

Luckily, the California legislature has voted to remove some of those barriers. Both the assembly and the state Senate have passed SB 35, a proposal from freshman state Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco. The law would crack down on cities that undersupply housing by expediting approval for new building projects in municipalities that are undershooting their housing goals. Gov. Jerry Brown still needs to sign it, but Brown supports the bill and it’s all but a done deal.

One bill can’t fix the California housing crisis. But SB 35 is a big step in the right direction, and will enable more people to move to hugely productive areas of California and grow the American economy as a whole. The whole country should be celebrating.

Same goes for the landmark climate change legislation California passed this year. With bipartisan backing, the state extended its cap-and-trade program through to 2030. The legislation built on SB 32, a bill passed in 2016 that mandated a 40 percent reduction in emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2030. "It’s hard to overstate how ambitious this is," Brad Plumer wrote for Vox at the time. "Few countries have ever achieved cuts this sharp while enjoying robust economic growth." Achieving that goal will be difficult, and would’ve been more difficult if the cap and trade program had lapsed, a real possibility due to legal challenges. So this year, the legislature protected cap and trade.

These are pretty quick glosses on three complicated policy achievements. Some environmental justice groups think California’s climate bills haven’t gone far enough, and do little to help people living near polluters. SB 35 doesn’t totally eliminate the ability of local policymakers to use zoning and other levers to keep out newcomers. Some local leaders, like Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, have been grumbling that bail reform lets too many accused criminals out on the street, despite the accompanying drop in crime; if they grumble louder, the reforms could be in danger.

But it’s important to know that big improvements in people’s lives can and do happen at the state level. They’re complex and caveated and don’t go far enough — but such is the story of all government action. This year, California and New Jersey legislators have passed and overseen, respectively, measures that will make America as a whole substantially better off. They may not get the attention of Republican legislative chicanery in Congress or state-level Republican law to suppress voting. But these efforts deserve attention and commendation.