did the midterms alter the criminal justice landscape?

November 7, 2018
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Are Americans finally ready to engage with the specter of racist tradition in its criminal justice landscape? There were hints of that in the numerous storylines that unfolded on Election Day, ones that not only saw historic gains for Black American legislators and prosecutors at the local and state level, but the passage of red-state referendums that re-enfranchised convicted felons and finally rolled back Jim Crow-era monstrosities that were written into the State charter.

The headline win belonged to Letitia James whose win in the New York state attorney general’s race made her the first woman and the first Black person voted to that position in New York, and the first African-American woman to be elected to any statewide office. And while the NYAG’s role in recent history has focused on white-collar crime and blocking the orange menace in the White House, James made criminal justice reform a huge part of her platform.

Potentially the most immediately impactful vote came in Florida, where the same voters that were electing racist, NRA-backed trash for governor and senator, also passed Amendment 4, which automatically restored voting rights to people previously convicted of felonies; and passed it by an overwhelming margin, with 64% of the vote. This will affect over one million Florida citizens, with as much as 10% of the state’s adult population now free to vote. And because incarceration rates are so heavily skewed to African-Americans, Amendment 4 most greatly affects the state’s Black men, as many as 400,000 of whom will be eligible to vote.

Over in Louisiana, voters passed Amendment 2, which finally eliminated a Jim Crow law that allowed non-unanimous juries to issue guilty verdicts in felony trials. Originally passed in 1898(!), the law was part of the state’s constitutional convention that rolled back African-Americans’ Reconstruction gains, with the clear meaning to reduce the power of Black jurors. Amendment 2 was so racist and so outdated that it had bipartisan support even in cherry-red Louisiana, and passed with nearly 65% of the vote. (Oregon remains the only state in the country still implementing non-unanimous juries.)

A slew of criminal justice reform-minded local prosecutors and district attorneys were also voted into office around the country:

  • In Boston, Rachael Rollins was elected DA for Suffolk County, thus becoming the city’s first Black woman to be elected as attorney general in the state of Massachusetts. Rollins had made racist sentencing disparities a central tent of her campaign.
  • Wesley Bell became the first Black prosecutor voted into office for St. Louis County, Missouri. He’d previously defeated Robert P. McCulloch, the veteran prosecutor during the grand jury non-indictment of Darren Wilson following the murder of Michael Brown, in the Democratic primaries. Bell’s stated approach is to replace incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, with “progressive diversion and drug treatment programs.”
  • In Bexar County, Texas, which encompasses the city of San Antonio, former defense attorney Joe Gonzales became the county DA by campaigning on similar diversion-program sentencing approaches, as well as the implementation of citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession rather than arrest.

(All three were endorsed by Shaun King, whose Real Justice PAC is doing incredible work pushing the issue of criminal justice reform throughout the country.)

And ballot justice was finally served to Rep. Dan Donovan (R – Staten Island). The former New York City DA who refused to prosecute NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for his 2014 murder of Eric Garner, was upset in his congressional race by Democrat Max Rose.


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