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Analysis

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.

(Image: Shut­ter­stock.com)