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Voters Championed Criminal Justice Reforms

Winning ballot measures will re-enfranchise voters and end a Jim Crow-era jury law

November 7, 2018

Criminal justice reform matters. That’s the message voters in Florida sent on Tuesday when they resoundingly approved a ballot initiative that will repeal a lifetime voting ban on people with past criminal convictions – and re-enfranchise around 1.4 million voters in the process.    

Voters across the country also moved the needle on sentencing reform, police oversight, and due process. And encouragingly, election results largely highlighted bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. Here’s a look at how criminal justice ballot initiatives fared in the 2018 midterm elections.

Florida restored voting rights for 1.4 million returning citizens

Florida voters approved Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to as many as 1.4 million residents with a past criminal conviction who had been permanently barred from voting. That includes 10 percent of the state’s voting age population and more than 20 percent of African American adults. This marks the largest expansion of voting rights since the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971. Previously, Florida was one only four states with laws permanently barring ex-offenders from voting, even if they had finished their sentences.

This is a repudiation of one of the pillars of mass incarceration: the idea, backed by now former-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that people who have committed a crime are past redemption. Florida voters sent a strong signal that they believe in second chances.

Louisiana struck down a Jim Crow law that permitted non-unanimous juries

Louisiana voted to pass Amendment 2, which will end a Jim Crow-era law that allowed for split juries in felony trials. The state, which has the second highest incarceration rate in the United States, will now require unanimous juries for criminal convictions. Previously, Louisiana required votes from just 10 of 12 jurors to reach a guilty verdict in serious felony trials.

Louisiana enacted the split jury law in 1898 after the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment forced the state to include black people in juries. Split juries provided a workaround so that black jurors could easily be overruled by a white majority in felony trials. According to research on trial convictions in Louisiana, black defendants are disproportionately impacted by the state’s non-unanimous juries. Now, felony convictions in Louisiana will require unanimous decisions, thanks to bipartisan support for Amendment 2 in the state legislature and in the electorate.

Other wins (and a miss) on criminal justice reform in the midterms

There were additional notable criminal justice reform victories on election night. Florida voters approved Amendment 11, which will allow the state legislature to retroactively reduce sentences, including for unfair drug sentences. Voters in Nashville, Tennessee overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, which will create an independent police oversight board with the power to investigate police misconduct. And voters in Michigan voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, while Missouri and Utah legalized medical marijuana.

There was at least one notable loss. Ohioans missed the opportunity to pass a ballot initiative that would reclassify drug possession offenses as misdemeanors. The move could have reduced Ohio’s prison population by an estimated 10,000 people and would have been a major win for addressing mass incarceration in the state.

Overall, though, election night victories in criminal justice reform efforts marked huge steps toward a fairer system of justice. Amid the immense work that remains to be done, these steps are causes for celebration.