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August 30, 2018

"Criminal Justice Reform Is on the Midterm Ballot"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new New Republic piece by Matt Ford with the subheadline "Andrew Gillum wants to fix his state's broken carceral system.  He's not alone among Democratic nominees for governor." Here are excerpts:  

In his victory speech, Gillum highlighted an issue that’s received short shrift from Florida policymakers in recent years. “Beneath my name is also a desire by the majority of people in this state to see real criminal-justice reform take hold,” he told a crowd of supporters at his Tuesday night victory rally. “The kind of criminal-justice reform which allows people who make a mistake to be able to redeem themselves from that mistake, return to society, have their right to vote, but also have their right to work.”

The message could apply anywhere in the United States. But it carries greater resonance in Florida, which ranks among the most carceral states in the union. While crime has plummeted nationwide since the early 1990s, Florida’s prison population hasn’t seen significant declines. Instead, the number of people serving more than ten years in prison tripled between 1996 and 2017. Lawmakers abolished parole for most crimes by 1993, which requires the state to keep many prisoners behind bars who don’t pose a danger to society. Even today, the state has shirked the broader reform-oriented trend on both the left and the right.

Gillum has campaigned on a platform that could change that. His campaign’s official site touts measures similar to those adopted in some Democratic-led states, like reducing the number of crimes that carry mandatory-minimum sentences and reforming the cash-bail system, which disproportionately harms lower-income Americans. Others are more bold: Gillum went further than his primary opponents and called for the full legalization, rather than just decriminalization, of marijuana. Though he told reporters he is not an opponent of the death penalty, Gillum said he would suspend executions to address concerns about racial disparities....

Other Democratic gubernatorial candidates have also called for sweeping criminal-justice in their states. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who would be the first black woman governor ever elected in America, grounds her approach in the experience of her brother Walter, who has bipolar disorder and developed a drug addiction. Instead of receiving treatment, he and tens of thousands of other Americans with major mental illnesses are regularly churned through the criminal justice system for committing crimes of survival like petty theft. Abrams’s platform focuses on improving alternatives to incarceration and bolstering reentry programs to improve the transition back into society.

Maryland’s Ben Jealous, a former president of the NAACP, would go even further. His platform calls for the full legalization of marijuana, the abolition of cash-bail programs, shifting the state’s parole powers away from the governor’s office and toward independent experts, and expunging criminal records for certain crimes to aid reentry and employment efforts. Among his more significant proposals is a state program to investigate prisoners’ claims of innocence. A commission dedicated to that task in North Carolina secured eight exonerations in its first nine years of existence.

A constant fear among reformers is that the political winds could turn back toward tough-on-crime policies after years of favorable weather. It’s unclear whether that will be a problem in Gillum’s contest against DeSantis. Many GOP elected officials have thrown their weight behind criminal-justice reform to varying degrees in recent years, though it’s unclear if DeSantis counts himself among them. His threadbare campaign issues page doesn’t discuss the issue and his campaign staff hasn’t provided details on the matter to local media outlets. Like Trump, though, he has run as a law-and-order candidate, and seems more likely to emulate the president’s attack on Gillum as a supposed enabler of crime.

In addition to being glad to see this emphasis on some candidates' emphasis on criminal justice reform, the headline of this piece could also be used to describe the significant array of criminal-justice-related ballot initiatives coming before voters this fall. The article does mention that Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to eliminate felon disenfranchisement for most former offenders. In addition, Michigan and North Dakota voters will consider full marijuana legalization and Missouri and Utah voters will be considering medical marijuana initiatives. And in my own Ohio, as noted in this prior post, an interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative is on the November 2018 ballot. (Plug: The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, has this planned series of events to provide a venue for informed discussion of the 2018 Ohio Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment.)

August 30, 2018 at 01:09 PM | Permalink

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