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How Criminal Justice and Police Reform Fared in the Election

There was significant progress, but not across the board.

From sher­iff and prosec­utor races to ballot initi­at­ives on police over­sight and over- incar­cer­a­tion, there were many crim­inal justice-related issues on the ballot this year. 

To offer some context and perspect­ive on the results, Bren­nan Center Justice Program Director Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Bren­nan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen shared a few of their takeaways from the elec­tion and what the results portend for the future. 

Andrew Cohen: The obvi­ous big winner this cycle is the drug reform move­ment, which saw victor­ies in three states that legal­ized recre­ational marijuana and passage of an Oregon meas­ure that decrim­in­al­izes small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and methamphet­am­ines. And there’s a clear national signal from voters in cities to hold their local police more account­able, and I think that obvi­ously comes from the frus­tra­tion and anger folks feel in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year. 

From Pitt­s­burgh to Port­land to Colum­bus, voters signed up for broader civil­ian review over poli­cing. In San Fran­cisco, voters even abol­ished mandat­ory staff­ing levels for the police, a form of “defund­ing,” to be sure. “Don’t boo, vote,” Barack Obama always says. What we just saw Tues­day is that people protested, and then they voted too.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen: While there’s much work to do to reima­gine our justice system, it’s heart­en­ing to see that more than a dozen crim­inal justice reform and police account­ab­il­ity meas­ures passed. In Cali­for­nia, voters passed Propos­i­tion 17, which will enable more than 50,000 former Cali­for­nia pris­on­ers to vote while on parole. Voters there also defeated Propos­i­tion 20, which would have barred people convicted of certain seri­ous crimes from earlier release, increased penal­ties for some retail thefts, and made parole condi­tions more severe. 

We also saw some import­ant local prosec­utor races play out, where candid­ates who all campaigned on redu­cing prison popu­la­tions or moving away from incar­cer­a­tion driven policies were elec­ted in Orlando, Austin, Los Angeles, and Jeffer­son County, Color­ado.

Cohen: I don’t know that you can say it was an elec­tion that signaled clearly in one direc­tion or another when it comes to the people we ask to guide our crim­inal justice systems. Some reform-minded prosec­utors — Julie Gunnigal in Mari­copa County, Arizona, comes to mind — prevailed. But other reformers — Zach Thomas in John­son County, Kansas, comes to mind — lost.

Many hard­line sher­iffs, like Wayne Ivey of Brevard County, Flor­ida, were reelec­ted even as some reformers now will run local police depart­ments. The nation seems as divided on justice person­nel as it is about so much else, and what that means is that we’ll continue to have differ­ent levels of commit­ment to racial justice and the rest in differ­ent juris­dic­tions.

Eisen: Another inter­est­ing trend is that some of these reforms passed in both red and blue states. For example, both Nebraska and Utah voted to amend their state consti­tu­tions to elim­in­ate the 13th Amend­ment loop­hole allow­ing slavery as punish­ment for a crime.

It’s a signi­fic­ant recog­ni­tion by voters that people behind bars should not be forced to work for free. But the changes likely won’t affect prison labor programs in those states because their correc­tions’ depart­ments do pay incar­cer­ated work­ers, albeit very low wages.

And as noted, the counties attempt­ing to ensure better civil­ian over­sight over their police depart­ments saw tremend­ous victor­ies in both red and blue states.

Cohen: To pick up on the red-state/blue-state theme, some local sher­iff races went to reformers in states in the Deep South, like Geor­gia and South Caro­lina. Here’s how the Char­le­ston Post and Cour­ier put it: “In the wake of scan­dal after scan­dal, Elec­tion Day ushered in a likely record wave of new South Caro­lina sher­iffs, with voters in more than a quarter of the state’s counties reject­ing incum­bents, repla­cing disgraced lawmen or select­ing newcomers in their local races.” And not just reformers but Black reformers, sher­iffs of color, in places that have not had them ever, or at least since Recon­struc­tion.

Eisen: And let’s talk about local law enforce­ment elec­tions and what they might mean for immig­ra­tion enforce­ment going forward. For example, in both Gwin­nett County, Geor­gia, and Travis County, Texas, voters suppor­ted candid­ates who want to end close ties with ICE at the local level.

Yet we also saw Pinel­las County, Flor­ida, support a sher­iff who has worked closely with ICE and facil­it­ate its abil­ity to deport undoc­u­mented indi­vidu­als housed in local jails. Now, if Joe Biden wins, we are likely to see signi­fic­ant changes anyway in the way ICE oper­ates and that might ease the federal-local tensions we’ve seen over the past four years. But it’s still signi­fic­ant that voters in some places chose to turn away from Trump-era prac­tices.