Voters Still in ‘Punitive’ Mood, Despite Support for Justice Reforms, Panel Told

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Polling station, Des Moines, Iowa, November 3, 2020. Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr

Criminal justice reform always has been a proposition for the long haul, with few significant changes made directly by voters.

That was the case this month, when the results of referendum ballots and prosecutorial races around the nation amounted to a “mixed bag” that continued some reform trends while delivering some setbacks to those hoping for broader change, according to experts assembled by the Council on Criminal Justice think tank for an online discussion.

The clearest sign of progress for reformers was marijuana legalization, approved by voters in four states. That added to a trend already well under way, with 15 states now having permitted recreational use of the drug.

As for other proposed reforms affecting prisons and sentencing, some passed and some failed on Nov 3.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who led the state in two widely separated stints— 1975-1983 and 2011-2019—concluded that the election results overall didn’t change the fact that the “polarized” nation is “still very punitive,” and criminal justice reform has a “long way to go.”

Voters in Brown’s state often have made justice policy by ballot propositions, not all of them progressive. In 1994, the state passed one of the nation’s first “three strikes” laws, providing that a defendant convicted of a felony, with two or more previous “strikes” would get a prison term of 25 years to life.

This year, things turned out more on the liberal side.

Measure J, which was approved by nearly 57 percent of voters in Los Angeles County, requires at least 10 percent of the budget to be earmarked for community investments and alternatives to incarceration, such as addiction treatment and other pretrial services, reported an Associated Press roundup of this year’s ballot measures.

Across California, nearly 59 percent of voters approved Proposition 17, which restores voting rights to formerly incarcerated people who have yet to complete parole.

Voters also rejected a proposal championed by many reformers to eliminate cash bail.

Significantly, more than 60 percent of voters disapproved of a measure that would have rolled back some reforms by increasing punishments for some crimes and made fewer prisoners eligible for early parole.

The proposal was favored by many prosecutors, police chiefs and sheriffs, leading Brown to say that the politics of crime and justice are “not as bad as they used to be,” when measures touted as “get tough” routinely were approved by voters.

Still, 76 of 77 Oklahoma counties opposed a ballot initiative that would have modified the state constitution and prevented courts from imposing sentence enhancements on people who never had been convicted of a violent felony.

A winning sheriff candidate said the proposal “puts public safety in jeopardy,” reported Oklahoma Watch. 

Another speaker was State’s Attorney Kim Foxx of Chicago, who was re-elected this month after one term pursuing a reform agenda.

Foxx said she was encouraged that she and other “progressive prosecutor” candidates won in several big cities around the U.S.

Foxx’ Cook County position encompasses both the city of Chicago, where she won a solid victory, and suburban areas, where she did not.

Overall, Foxx won about 54 percent of the vote. Republican Pat O’Brien led Foxx among suburban voters, 51 percent to 43 percent. A libertarian candidate “may have played spoiler, siphoning off 6.4 percent of suburban votes,” by one account.

Foxx said “a lot of work needs to be done” to convince suburban voters to support her policy of concentrating on violent crime prosecutions and de-emphasizing the filing of charges in minor cases.

South Carolina State Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Democrat, told the session that he won re-election this year after taking a “sensible” position on criminal justice reform that resonated with voters.

Malloy has served as a Judiciary Committee member in his state, which has seen its prison population drop from more than 24,000 in 2009 to about 16,000 this year.

Another perspective was offered by Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican.

Brandes noted that his state’s prison population, one of the nation’s highest, has declined to about 85,000, a decrease of almost 12 percent since 2019.

However, the extent of the decrease is misleading because of a 30,000-case backlog in the courts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandes said.

“That logjam is going to break” eventually, and the corrections system “will be overwhelmed,” he predicted.

Brandes said Florida and other states need plans to project “what we want our corrections systems to look like” in future years. Most states lack such plans, he said, saying that their prison systems should be called “departments of warehousing.”

One optimistic note for justice reform was sounded at the session by Tarra Simmons, a former inmate who won 65 percent of the vote to be elected to the state legislature in Washington state representing a district near Tacoma.

“From the Big House to the State House…We do recover!” she tweeted after the election.

Simmons, who served a 30-month term for drug and theft convictions, said she will work on prisoner re-entry issues as a legislator. Washington lacks a parole system, which she called a “huge problem.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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