Criminal justice reformers cheer recent election victories
Steps to decriminalize drugs and to ease mass incarceration are hailed
NEW YORK— Almost six months after the death of George Floyd, criminal justice reform advocates are cheering the election of a handful of progressive prosecutors, the passage of ballot initiatives designed to ease mass incarceration and the decriminalization of drugs in several states.
Voters also sent Black Lives Matter activists to Congress, restored voting rights to former prisoners and scored other gains sought by the protests that filled American streets last summer. Leaders in the movement want to build on those successes in 2021.
The aim was to “build a multiracial coalition that could translate the movement power we saw in the streets into electoral might. And it worked,” said Maurice Mitchell, a Movement for Black Lives strategist and national director of the Working Families Party.
The 2020 results were not all victories, however. Reformers also saw setbacks, including a blow to the movement to defund local police departments. Rep. James Clyburn, the House majority whip from South Carolina, and other Democrats blamed the defunding rhetoric for the party’s surprise loss of seats in the House. Clyburn warned that the idea could harm the larger BLM movement.
Going into Election Day, most Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, rejected the idea of reducing police budgets to answer for systemic racism in the justice system.
The protests brought by Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May thrust the defunding demand before city councils, including those in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and New York. But defunding appears to be unpopular when voters hear it discussed in abstract, said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College in
New York and author of “The End of Policing.”
“In a whole bunch of places, when people were able to vote on something concrete, it turned out they were in favor of defunding the police, but just not in those terms,” Vitale said. He pointed to a ballot measure in Los Angeles County that reallocates money to services to keep people out of jail.
Measure J, which was approved by nearly 57% of voters in Los Angeles, requires at least 10% of the county’s budget to be earmarked for community investments and alternatives to incarceration, such as addiction treatment and other pretrial services.
Across California, nearly 59% of voters approved Proposition 17, which restores voting rights to formerly incarcerated people who have yet to complete parole.
“When our progressive vision was on the ballot, we won,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of BLM and executive director of the BLM Global Network Foundation, who is from Los Angeles.
The victories happened against a backdrop of mass incarceration and police brutality that took decades to construct: Almost 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated, Black and Latino people disproportionately so. And Black people are far more likely to be pulled over, searched and or killed by police, studies of criminal justice data have repeatedly shown.
With Ferguson Uprising protester Cori Bush of St. Louis and progressive activist Mondaire Jones of New York headed to Congress, Cullors and other movement leaders believe they now have new champions for sweeping legislative justice reforms at the federal level.
In Los Angeles County, George Gascón, a criminal justice reformer who previously served as district attorney in San Francisco and as assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, defeated incumbent DA Jackie Lacey, whose campaign was heavily funded by a union representing state prison guards.
The county has the nation’s largest DA’s office, covering a jurisdiction with more than 10 million residents.
Marijuana legalization and decriminalization also won big. Four states, including New Jersey and Arizona, passed referendums allowing recreational cannabis.
Voters made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Several cities embraced more police accountability. Voters in two California cities and two Pennsylvania cities joined those in Seattle; Portland, Ore., and Columbus, Ohio, to approve ballot measures to toughen civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies.