Richmond Times-Dispatch

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.

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