Criminal justice reform just swept America

Unfortunately, the news from Louisiana isn’t all good: A second amendment, one that bars people convicted of felonies from public office for five years after the completion of their sentence, also passed.

Until Amendment 4, the norm was to require Floridians to wait at least five years after release or the end of parole or probation, whichever came latest, to even apply for re-enfranchisement. Floridians whose felonies involve murder or sex crimes will remain subject to this restrictive policy. But the 1.5 million other Floridians just had their personhood vindicated and regained the prerogative to exercise their right to vote.

This isn’t just about Florida: It’s about setting the norm for voting rights nationwide—just three other states have such a policy—and the potential for bipartisan collaboration around criminal justice reform. Imagine this: Both Ben & Jerry’s and the Koch Brothers supported re-enfranchisement.

Florida also passed Amendment 11, which eliminates another of Florida’s outlier policies—one shared by just two other states—prohibiting the retroactive application of changes to sentencing law. Why is killing this so-called “saving clause” such a big deal? Sentencing is harsh nationwide at both the state and the federal levels, not to mention deeply biased. Which is to say, reforms are overdue.

When you can’t apply reforms retroactively, anyone previously sentenced or currently on trial is stuck with the old sentencing regime, no matter how overdue or significant a reform is. If I’d been sentenced to 20 years under a mandatory minimum law, that’s what I’d serve, even if the legislature eliminated the mandatory minimum the next morning and reduced the possible penalty to five years.

Amendment 11 did one other laudable thing. It’s not a criminal justice victory exactly, but the amendment deletes language from the state constitution that let the legislature bar non-citizens from property ownership. Which is backward no matter how you view it. 

The reforms that swept Washington, Colorado, Alabama, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Utah, some parts of Ohio, and Oregon are no less notable, just not quite on the same scale.

It’s 150 years late, but Colorado abolished prison slavery with Amendment A, which prohibits the use of prison labor without pay. Organizations including Abolish Slavery Colorado, the ACLU of Colorado, and the NAACP contributed to the push for Amendment A. It’s a major victory: Colorado is one of the first states to remove constitutional language permitting slavery as punishment, a take-off on a clause in the Thirteenth Amendment. At least a dozen states are still lagging; efforts to eliminate the practice in Wisconsin and Tennessee have failed.

Washington voters passed a “good faith” test for the use of deadly force by law enforcement by about 60 to 40 percent, making it easier to hold police accountable. In 2017, Washington had the fifth most deaths by police in the country. In one-third of those killings, the victim was showing signs of a mental health crisis. 

Under the previous standard, law enforcement officers couldn’t be prosecuted for the use of deadly force in the absence of proven “malice.” That’s made Washington the toughest place in the country to prosecute police shootings. Initiative 940 requires an officer to have acted in good faith both objectively and subjectively; further, it requires law enforcement to receive de-escalation and mental health training—and to provide first aid.

Alabama voters decided sheriffs shouldn’t be able to get rich by starving prisoners anymore. For years (and years and years), Alabama’s sheriffs have been siphoning hundreds of thousands of dollars meant to feed prisoners for personal use, citing ostensibly ambiguous pre-World War II statutory language that lets them hang onto “excess” food funds.

Some sheriffs—more than a few—resorted to extreme measures to maximize their take, subjecting prisoners to meals that range from unappetizing to inadequate to unsafe. On example: Two sheriffs split the $1,000 cost of an 18-wheeler full of corndogs, and one fed prisoners corndogs three times as day for a month. Unsurprisingly, federal courts have taken action against several of these sheriffs.

Tuesday’s vote is a huge deal, although it only applies to two counties due to Alabama’s constitutional quirks. Sheriffs have ignored official guidance from the attorney general and even, most recently, from the governor. Not even prior federal rulings against individual sheriffs deterred others from continuing the practice. But these amendments just may: They signal that the public opposes the practice. The legislator behind one of the amendments has already promised to introduce a bill to end the practice statewide.

Massachusetts upheld protections for transgender people by voting yes on Question 3. The anti-discrimination law ensures that violations against transgender people will land perpetrators in the criminal justice system. The law is just two years old, so this year’s election was a major test, and its survival is a significant victory. 

The campaign for Question 3 also generated one of the most amusing ads of the cycle.

Michigan legalized recreational marijuana, and Missouri and Utah have legalized medical marijuana. Michigan’s the first midwest state to legalize recreational marijuana. Pot will become legal 10 days after results are certified; the Detroit Free Press estimates legalization will take place in early December but doesn’t anticipate commercial sales until 2020.

Amendment 2 made Missouri the 32nd state to approve medical marijuana. The measure, which passed with two-thirds of the vote, permits doctors to prescribe marijuana for 10 medical conditions. The margin in Utah was narrower, but one in five voters said they voted primarily because of the initiative. Proposition 2 will likely be replaced by legislation; either way, it’s effected major change in a generally conservative state.

Five Ohio cities—out of the six that had such ballot measures—also decriminalized marijuana. (Unfortunately, Ohio rejected a ballot measure that would have lessened punishment for drug crimes, promoted treatment, and de-emphasized incarceration.)

North Dakota missed out on legalizing recreational marijuana by quite a bit, 41 to 59 percent. The measure would also have created a pathway for expunging marijuana convictions. It’s a somewhat surprising result, given that North Dakotans passed the state’s medical marijuana measure 64 to 36 percent two years ago.

Oregon voters rejected an attempt to nix its 30-year-old sanctuary law, which limits local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities, by a large margin. The same legislation also prohibits racial profiling. That their vote took place amidst one of Donald Trump’s strongest anti-immigration pushes makes it all the more significant.

These reforms illustrate the potential for state-level progress even as the federal government continues not just to fail, but to attack citizens. 

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