Beware of the Backlash Against Reform Prosecutors

Not everyone welcomed the election of reform-minded prosecutors around the country last fall. The case of new Suffolk County. Ma., DA Rachael Rollins is an example of pushback from tough-on-crime advocates, warns a reform advocate.

A month before Suffolk County (Ma.) District Attorney Rachael Rollins was elected to become Boston’s District Attorney—and the first woman to hold that post—she announced that she would not prosecute 15 petty offenses.

They range from charges such as “minor in possession of alcohol,” which needlessly suck normal teenagers and young adults into the criminal justice system, to “disorderly conduct,” a statute so broad that it criminalizes whatever a prosecutor feels like it does.

Now, the National Police Association (NPA), a little-known nonprofit formed in 2017, has filed a bar complaint with the Office of the Bar Counsel in Massachusetts in a presumed attempt to strip Rollins’ law license.

The complaint itself is unlikely to succeed, as it fails to clearly state how she violated the Massachusetts Bar’s ethics rules. But it is worth highlighting as a significant attempt to close the main “safety valve” against American mass incarceration: reform-minded elected prosecutors.

The number of such prosecutors is growing. Last fall’s midterm elections saw the election of prosecutors from both parties committed to reform, in states ranging from Texas to Missouri and Alabama.

For those hoping for a significant shift from the failed “tough on crime” strategies of the 1990s, this was welcome news. But it’s not surprising to see stirrings of a backlash.

The U.S. is the most incarcerated nation on the planet, due to factors such as racism, the politicization of crime, and a victims’ rights movement born out of carceral feminism.

We also lack a culture of restraint when it comes to criminalization and punishment. Unlike most European countries that leave the drafting of penal codes to scholarly experts, our laws are an inconsistent patchwork created by state legislators who generally know nothing about criminology and do not care to know. (Criminal law is a mere fraction of their work.)

However, head county prosecutors, often called District Attorneys, are interested enough in the dynamics of crime and public safety to make criminal justice their entire jobs. While they may be unfamiliar with the academic literature on sound crime control and public safety tactics, they take a more macroscopic and systemic view of potential crimes than the average police officer.

The reason is baked into their job descriptions.

Ultimately, a beat patrol officer in Chelsea, Mass.,—a town with a population of approximately 37,000 people—has one main directive. When there is probable cause a criminal law has been broken, the officer is to arrest a person, drive him or her to the jail, and give a report to prosecutors about what was observed.

In contrast, the District Attorney of Suffolk County (population approximately 800,000) must decide whether the crime is probable beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether it is in the best interest of the public to use limited resources on that case.

That is not to say that policing cannot or should not be more strategic or preventative. David M. Kennedy, now a professor of justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, developed a group violence intervention strategy dubbed the “Boston Miracle,” that was considered responsible for the plummeting of Boston’s homicide rate in the 1990s.

However, the implementation of such strategies by police departments is not bottom-up but top-down—a result of partnerships with police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders.

The U.S. is not about to move to the European model, in which advisory boards of academic experts essentially write state criminal codes in lieu of popularly elected legislators.

We cannot even get states to swallow the Model Penal Code, drafted by the American Law Institute that includes many of America’s most brilliant legal minds.

As such, the closest thing we will get to employing crime expertise to informing criminal justice policy on a day-to-day basis is through our District Attorneys, to whom state legislatures grant nearly unfettered discretion.

This is more or less the conclusion that University of North Carolina Law Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick arrived at in a blog post about Rollins’ petty offense declination policy in September.

In a world of limited resources, District Attorneys cannot prosecute every single crime and petty offense that occurs within their jurisdiction. Instead, they must make decisions on how to use their resources, within the permissive borders of deliberately broad and plentiful criminal laws.

Bill Otis, the Georgetown University law professor whom President Donald Trump nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and who has been sharply criticized for his pro-mass incarceration views—Slate called him “obsessed with black-on-black crime”—has joined the chorus of Rollins critics.

“If I wanted to make a living being a small time thief, would I not be well-advised to move to Suffolk County?” he said, in response to Prof. Hessick.

But Otis ignored the fact that there are many other statutes Rollins could use to crack down on this sort of behavior, one of them being “organized retail crime,” which can fetch up to ten years in state prison.

It is unfair to suggest that Rollins’ plans amount to ineffective crime control measures or will hurt the interests of crime victims. Instead, she is trying to give people a chance to grow from their relatively harmless mistakes without getting clawed into by the criminal justice system.

The same point needs to be emphasized as other reform prosecutors across the country face criticism from those who want to reverse the nationwide movement for justice reform.

It is often said in reform circles that people are more than their worst moments.

Rory Fleming

Rory Fleming

If a person’s worst moment is shoplifting a shirt, making a mean comment on an internet video game, or shooting up heroin while chemically dependent, perhaps desistance from the behavior should be good enough for all of us.

Rory Fleming is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney and he tweets at @RoryFleming8A. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Fight Brewing Over FL Measure to Restore Felon Voting

Former felons who qualify to vote in Florida are supposed to be able to register on Jan. 8. Some opponents of the ballot proposition say the legislature still must vote on implementation. The ACLU threatens a lawsuit.

When Florida voters approved a ballot initiative last month to restore the voting rights of some felons, advocates rejoiced in the expectation that more than a million people soon would have the chance to add their names to the voter rolls. Now, a fight is brewing between the broad coalition of civil and voting rights groups that backed the measure and some state and local officials who argue that lawmakers must shape its implementation, The Hill reports. That has raised concerns among some supporters that any action by opponents could lead to legislation that lingers in the state Capitol, months after they expected it to begin.

The growing uncertainty over how and when the measure, known as Amendment 4, will take effect has stirred confusion among county election officials and raised the prospect of a bitter legal dispute over the voting rights of roughly 1.4 million people convicted of felonies. Florida’s laws barring those with felony records from voting were among the nation’s toughest. Along with Kentucky and Iowa, it was among three states that permanently revoked felons’ access to the ballot box. Those who hoped to have their voting rights restored were required to plead their case to the state’s Executive Clemency Board. Melba Pearson of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida is gearing up to file a lawsuit if former felons who qualify to register to vote under Amendment 4 are turned away on Jan. 8, when the law is expected to take effect. “At the end of the day, you don’t get to undo election results because you don’t like the outcome,” Pearson said. The ACLU of Florida and other advocates for the amendment argue that it was intended to become effective without any action from the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.


L.A. Charges Nine in Election Fraud Scheme

Using cash and cigarettes as lures, the defendants approached homeless people on skid row and asked them to forge signatures on state ballot measure petitions and voter registration forms, the district attorney’s office said.

A forged signature swapped for $1 or sometimes a cigarette. Such crude exchanges played out hundreds of times on Los Angeles’ skid row during the 2016 election cycle and again this year, prosecutors said as they announced criminal charges against nine people accused in a fraud scheme, the Los Angeles Times reports. Using cash and cigarettes as lures, the defendants approached homeless people on skid row and asked them to forge signatures on state ballot measure petitions and voter registration forms, the district attorney’s office said. The defendants face several criminal charges, including circulating a petition with fake names, voter fraud and registering a fictitious person.

The charges came out of a Los Angeles Police Department crackdown on suspected election fraud on skid row. “They paid individuals to sign the names,” said police officer Deon Joseph. “That’s an assault on our democracy.” State officials said petition signature scams aren’t widespread in California. People hired to help qualify initiatives for the ballot are often paid per signature collected, typically $1 to $2, but officials said a recent slew of proposed ballot initiatives had pushed the rate as high as $6 a signature. It is illegal for the collectors to pay people for signatures.
Los Angeles police Capt. Marc Reina said officials used undercover officers and security camera video before arresting one of the nine people charged. “We didn’t charge any homeless people,” said district attorney spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales.


Post-Midterms Forecast for Justice Reform: Cloudy, But Encouraging

Voters besieged with scary events and frightening rhetoric mostly swung in the opposite direction at the ballot box last week. That’s expanded an encouraging bipartisan reform climate for newly elected, or re-elected, governors, DAs and legislators—if they’re willing to take heed, says a leading justice commentator.

From the 1970s through the turn of the century, criminal justice was one of the most divisive issues in American politics, with the “soft on crime” tag dooming legions of candidates on the campaign trail.

But over the past few election cycles, a wide range of criminal justice reforms has earned public approval, suggesting that the chest-thumping rhetoric of yesterday continues to lose its once-potent appeal.

This month’s midterm elections deepened the trend.

In Florida, where reform has been particularly hard won, voters returned the right to vote to more than a million people convicted of felonies, while Louisiana voters declared that jury verdicts in felony cases now must be unanimous.

These measures erased two of the most egregious vestiges of the pre-civil rights era, and they carry enormous symbolic and practical effects.

Reform-minded prosecutors took over in multiple cities, from Boston to St. Louis. Police accountability was strengthened in Nashville and in Washington State. Though criminal justice wasn’t central to their campaigns, the governors-elect in Wisconsin and Nevada seem much more likely to advance sensible policies than their predecessors.

These gains for safety and justice, and many others, are particularly impressive in light of the political environment. From the time that polls opened for early voting through Election Day, there was a massacre of worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a dozen bombs mailed to prominent political figures, and White House warnings about a caravan “invading” the country across its southern border.

Violence (and the fear of it) had to be high on voters’ minds. And it was: 83 percent of voters told exit pollsters that “extremist violence” was a factor in their votes.

When people are afraid, they yearn for protection, which traditionally has meant support for “lock ‘em up” measures.

Yet across the nation, voters besieged with scary events and frightening rhetoric mostly swung in the opposite direction this month. That suggests a real realignment of public opinion toward crime and punishment—one that distinguishes terrorism from street crime, that views people convicted of crimes as humans rather than “others,” and that recognizes the path to safer communities isn’t paved only with bricks and mortar.

While polls over the past several years have validated these attitudes, it’s what happens at the ballot box that really matters.

But there were caveats and mixed signals as well. Some of the progressive prosecutor candidates were defeated, while others didn’t make it through the primaries. The measure with the most direct potential impact on incarcerated populations—a ballot initiative in Ohio to downgrade some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and reinvest the prison savings into treatment and victim services—went down by nearly 30 points.


Mike DeWine, Gov.-Elect of Ohio. Photo via Wikipedia

The Republican candidate for governor in Ohio, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, had been a strong supporter of expanding incarceration alternatives for lower-lever drug violators—and he may still be. But when his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Richard Cordray, embraced the ballot measure designed to do exactly that, DeWine came out against it, arguing that as written the policy would make Ohio a magnet for dealers.

(Now that he has won, the legislature may take up and pass a similar package of policies in the lame duck session.)

In California, Gavin Newsom’s victory is likely to reinforce California’s efforts at prison reform. On the other hand, although the ballots are still being counted in Florida, once again, the nominal winner of Florida’s gubernatorial contest, Ron DeSantis, ran on a hardline justice platform while his opponent Andrew Gillum championed changes to the bail system and other reform measures.

Clouding the picture: Gillum, the Democrat, cited the conservative groups Right on Crime and the James Madison Institute as the sources of his criminal justice policy advice.

The Georgia governor’s race was another subtle illustration of how tricky this terrain remains. Republican candidate Brian Kemp took aim at illegal immigration and violent gangs but steered clear of criticizing the extensive efforts of outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who led six consecutive years of nearly unanimous legislative action on criminal and juvenile justice.

Meanwhile, Democrat Stacey Abrams ran on an aggressive reformist agenda, but the messaging in her television ads and in the sole televised debate was far more forceful, lamenting low pay for local law enforcement officers and promising to crack down on drug peddlers.

One possible – and encouraging – takeaway from the electoral tea leaves is that criminal justice has been largely defanged as a campaign weapon. Healthcare, the economy and immigration ranked as the top tier issues; in the big races, bread-and-butter criminal justice policy flew under the radar, with few candidates for major offices featuring it as a core component of their platforms.

When they do raise the subject, it’s typically to call for more safety and justice rather than pitting the two against each other.

Crime’s dimming presence in campaigns follows a long-term drop in both violent and property offenses, which have been cut in half since their peak in the early 1990s. It also comes after a decade in which more than 30 states adopted sentencing and corrections policies that deemphasize prison in favor of programs that cost less and more effectively reduce recidivism, often with broad bipartisan support.

At the national level, an otherwise paralyzed Congress just managed to pass comprehensive legislation to combat the opioid epidemic, an effort that focused on expanding treatment and avoided the reflexive sentencing enhancements of the past. It also appears poised to approve both sentencing and prison reforms as part of the “First Step Act,” which would be the first major federal criminal justice policy package in years.

That criminal justice reform has become such fertile ground for bipartisanship may help explain why the reform agenda was neither a grand asset nor a grave liability in last week’s elections. American voters seem savvier about the issue and demand more than baseless rhetoric and simplistic slogans.

Adam Gelb

Adam Gelb

They’ve seen that movie, and now they want real results.

The new crop of elected officials across the country, at all levels of government and up and down the political spectrum, would do well to take notice.

Adam Gelb has worked in criminal justice for more than 30 years as a journalist, congressional aide, senior state government official, and nonprofit executive. He is currently developing a national nonpartisan criminal justice membership organization and think tank.


The Big Winners in DA Races: Women and Blacks

For decades, the prosecutorial profession has sorely lacked diversity. This year’s midterm elections demonstrated how decisively that has changed.

For decades, the prosecutorial profession has sorely lacked diversity. After analyzing data from 2014, The Reflective Democracy Campaign found that 95 percent of the nation’s elected prosecutors were white.

According to their research, just one percent of prosecutors at the time were women of color.

But in recent elections—including the Nov. 6 midterms—voters have opted for a slew of diverse prosecutors who better reflect the communities they serve, and who promised to do their part to move away from policies that perpetuate mass incarceration.

Rachael Rollins

Rachael Rollins via Twitter

In Boston this month, voters elected Rachael Rollins as the first black woman to serve as District Attorney in Suffolk County, Mass. Rollins has boldly advanced a proposal to not prosecute 15 offenses, including: trespassing and drug possession with intent to distribute –charging choices that align with reforms made by other recently elected DAs in Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Rollins’ win continued a trend towards electing more women, African Americans and Latinos to prosecutorial posts that really became evident four years ago, when Baltimore voters cast their ballot for Marilyn Mosby, the youngest district attorney that city has ever elected.

In 2015, Portsmouth, Va., voters elected Stephanie Morales, the first woman to be the elected Commonwealth Attorney for the City.

Then, in 2016, Chicago voters elected Kim Foxx as Cook County District Attorney, Aramis Ayala as the first black State Attorney in Florida, Mark Dupree as the first black district attorney in Kansas, Kim Gardner as St. Louis Circuit Attorney, and Kim Ogg as the first Democratic district attorney in almost four decades in Houston, Tx.

And this year, in Rensselear County, New York, incumbent County District Attorney Joel Abelove lost to challenger Mary Pat Donnelly, a former town justice in East Greenbush, N.Y., and a mother of five who ran on the Independence Party ticket.

But what may be equally significant is the impact this month’s elections are likely to have on criminal justice reform in America.

While prosecutors on the ballot are often less well-known then individuals running for Congress, or for governor, they wield immense influence in the areas they serve. Prosecutors set the tone for the administration of justice, deciding whether to implement policies that increase incarceration or promote new practices that embody transparency, accountability, and aim to undo centuries of systemic racism.

This month, voters made clear that they’re largely ready for reform.

For example, Boston voters appear to have decisively rejected the perspectives of Rollins’ opponent, Michael Maloney, who positioned himself as tough on crime.  He had told  The Boston Globe that he would prosecute violence and gun crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

In Rensselear County, Donnelly came out in favor of implementing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (“LEAD”), which encourages officers to bring low-level arrestees to treatment or social services, rather than to booking. Meanwhile, her opponent, Abelove, may have suffered from criticism of his handling of a 2016 fatal police shooting in Troy, N.Y., of an unarmed DWI suspect.

Then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed criminal charges against Abelove related to that case.  The charges were later dismissed, but could be re-filed by the state’s newly elected Attorney General, Letitia James, the first African-American women ever to hold that position in New York.

Another revealing result came in Dallas County, where voters elected John Creuzot, a former judge who helped pioneer the county’s first diversion court two decades ago, and who pledged to continue the strategies he pursued on the bench of ensuring those charged with low-level drug offenses received treatment in lieu of incarceration. During his campaign, Creuzot made clear that his priorities as District Attorney would align with his thinking as a judge.

“In the first 90 days, I’m going to give you a plan to end mass incarceration,” he promised.

In Texas’ Bexar County, Joe Gonzales registered a decisive win over his opponent Tylden. On the campaign trail, Gonzales stated he would immediately work on better implementing a policy allowing police to issue tickets to those found in possession of less than four ounces of marijuana instead of arresting them.

And also in Texas, in Fort Bend County, Brian Middleton beat GOP opponent Cliff Vacek, a veteran judge, becoming the first black district attorney for the county of more than 765,000 residents. Middleton campaigned on moving bail reform forward and examining racial biases in the prosecution of his office’s cases.

Criminal justice reform was not a winning issue in every prosecutor election.

Oklahoma boasts the nation’s highest incarceration rate, and in its Payne and Logan counties, District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas was reelected Tuesday. She defeated challenger Cory Williams by more than 4,400 votes. Back in June, Thomas described reform efforts as a “fun and nice and popular” sound byte, but largely full of “empty, empty words.”

Those prosecutors who are embracing reform, however, join a growing movement.

Working with others who are part of the Fair and Just Prosecution network, they are challenging the status quo and taking on innovative practices to create solutions that promote safer and healthier communities.

Many of these prosecutors are promoting changes to fortify the trust of their constituents.

Recently, State Attorney Kim Foxx published a groundbreaking report revealing demographics of defendants prosecuted and data on sentencing and dispositions. Others are promoting accountability by creating conviction integrity processes, including in Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida (where none existed previously in that state), and in Kansas City (where over 50 justice system leaders wrote to support the vital role of DAs to correct past injustices).

And it’s not just DA races.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

Lauren-Brooke Esen

Voters chose to transform the criminal justice system in a number of ways. In Colorado, a constitutional provision that allows prison slavery was overturned. And Floridians decided to amend the state constitution to restore the voting rights of those convicted of a felony crime, which is expected to impact at least 1.4 million disenfranchised people in that state.

The movement away from the punitive criminal justice policies of the last four decades is gaining momentum, and on Nov. 6, a significant number of Americans said that was exactly what they wanted.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen is Senior Fellow in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and the author of Inside Private Prisons: an American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration. She welcomes comments from readers.


Are Americans Finally Turning Away From ‘Tough-on-Crime’ Era?

The victories of reform-minded prosecutors like John Creuzot in Dallas County last week could signal a “sea change” in public support for reductions in mass incarceration and the easing of sentencing guidelines, advocates and experts tell TCR.

Democrat John Creuzot, who defeated Republican incumbent Faith Johnson in the Dallas County District Attorney’s race last week,  had a campaign website that declared in big, bold letters, “It’s time to END Mass Incarceration.”

Republican Locke Thompson ran a successful campaign in Cole County, Missouri, with a campaign platform that included eliminating cash bail for low-level misdemeanors.

The victories chalked up by Creuzot and Thompson underlined a fact that has largely been overlooked in postmortems of this month’s midterms: the growing support of voters for genuine change in the criminal justice system regardless of their party affiliations—-and there is perhaps no clearer bellwether for how far voters think the needle should move on criminal justice reform than how they vote for local prosecutors.

While legislators run on a variety of issues, we are left with clear choices on a single subject in district attorney races: How will they handle the prosecution of crime?

In addition to the passage of pro-reform ballot initiatives and the election of pro-reform candidates to national offices, the outcome of some local district attorneys’ races last week represented encouraging signs for justice reform advocates.

“Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system,” says Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Campaign for Smart Justice, which worked to inform voters about where candidates stood on criminal justice reform.

He said that while gubernatorial candidates with platforms to end or reduce mass incarceration won 78 percent of the races and 71 percent of federal races, the district attorney results on Nov. 6 also continued to show a steady drumbeat toward reform in even the reddest parts of the country.

Ofer added that “95 percent of elected prosecutors are white men in the United States, but the prosecutors elected on Election Day in Dallas, Birmingham, Boston and St. Louis, were all black.”

In Dallas, Creuzot’s victory over Johnson, the county’s first female African-American DA, lent itself to a more nuanced interpretation.

During the campaign, Johnson touted her “tough on crime” stance, but, according to The New York Times, she also oversaw a program in which people with an arrest but no conviction could have their records wiped. She promised not to seek cash bail for those arrested with small amounts of marijuana.

Creuzot, however, appeared willing to go a step further, defining drugs more as a “public health problem” and pledging to cut incarceration by 15 percent to 20 percent by the end of his first term.

While there was a  “Blue Wave” in the Texas courts on Election Day, giving Democrats majorities on seven of the state’s 14 appeals courts compared with only three before, Ofer said the outcome of the Creuzot-Johnson faceoff was the most exciting in the nation.

“In the Dallas DA race, there was both a very contested primary and a very contested general election, and the candidate who ran on a platform of reducing incarceration by 15-20 percent won,” he said. “That’s a big deal,”

Added Ofer: “Even the Republican candidate who had not taken a criminal justice reform platform embraced it. It became a referendum on which candidate is better on criminal justice reform.”

In Jefferson County, Ala., pro-reform challenger Danny Carr become the district attorney after committing his office to stop jailing people for low-level marijuana offenses. Ofer said his stance was linked to a report showing that black people in Alabama were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Locke Thompson

Locke Thompson, elected DA in Cole County, Mo..

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that with far-right libertarian groups and reformers getting on the same page, politics is playing a smaller role in determining voters’ criminal justice stances.

Measures such as eliminating cash bail or changing marijuana policy, are not “going to drastically affect the problems of mass incarceration,” she told The Crime Report, but these kinds of changes are “starting to reflect the fact that people think differently about a prosecutor’s role.”

Ofer said the polling ahead of the Nov. 6 election indicated that voters were hungry for reform.

An ACLU poll, for example, found 78 percent of likely voters, including 71 percent of Republicans, were more likely to support a candidate who believes in criminal justice reform; 59 percent of likely voters said they wanted candidates who would reduce jail and prison populations; and 75 percent of voters said they were more likely to support candidates who pledged to reduce the criminal justice system’s racial disparities.

The results, he said, build on the gradual sea change that had already begun.

“This is a continuation, so it’s not a blip, it’s yet another milestone in the movement to holding prosecutors accountable for fueling mass incarceration in America,” he said.

Kate Pastor is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Readers’  comments are welcome.


Florida Restores Voting Rights to Formerly Incarcerated in a ‘Ballot Cast With Love”

The measure was among numerous  criminal justice-related initiatives on gun control, police training and marijuana approved by voters Tuesday. One big standout: Ohioans rejected an amendment to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison.

Floridians voted overwhelmingly Tuesday in favor of an amendment that will restore the right to vote for most convicted felons upon completion of their sentences, including prison terms, parole and probation.

“We showed that every ballot cast was a ballot cast with love,” Desmond Meade told the Orlando Sentinel, president of Floridians for a Fair Democracy and champion of the Amendment 4 initiative.

“We showed what can happen when we come together along the lines of humanity and reach each other where we’re at. That’s what happens when we transcend partisan lines and bickering, when we transcend racial anxieties and when we come together as God’s children.

While most formerly incarcerated people are rejoicing that Florida voters overturned the state’s 150-year-old constitutional voting ban, many others are feeling left behind, as the Amendment excludes restoration for those convicted of murder and sex crimes.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and director of the Human Rights Defense Center, was convicted of murder in 1987 and spent nearly 20 years in prison.

“No one involved in the campaign for Amendment Four has said anything along the lines of ‘this is just the first step.’ They’ve all been pretty clear that this is it and that they’re done if the amendment passes,” Wright told The Crime Report.

Wright claimed money played a big role in excluding those convicted of murder and sex crimes from the initiative.

“No one is going to spend $16 million to re-enfranchise 80,000 murders and sex offenders,” Wright said.

Before Tuesday, the only way a person with a prior felony conviction could vote was through the state’s clemency system, spearheaded by the governor. Now, at least 1.4 million residents in the state have the opportunity to participate in the election process again – or for the first time

Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia joined Florida in felony disenfranchisement, which dates back to the Reconstruction Era when many politicians sought ways to prevent African Americans from voting after the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870.

More Crime and Criminal Justice Ballot Results

Initiative-1639 in Washington State, the only state gun-regulations measure anywhere in the country, passed— effectively banning people under 21 from buying semi-automatic assault rifles and increasing background checks for those types of weapons.

Background checks will include a local law enforcement check of the most up-to-date local court, criminal and mental health records, and the completion of a firearm safety training course. New standards will be created for holding gun owners accountable if children or other prohibited people injure themselves or others with an insecurely stored firearm.

Also, in Washington voters approved initiative-940, requiring law enforcement officers to obtain violence de-escalation and mental health training to help officers resolve conflicts without using physical or deadly force.

In Oregon voters opted against Measure 105, which would have repealed the state ‘sanctuary law that would have forbade state and local law enforcement agencies from using public resources to arrest those whose only criminal violation is that they are illegally in the United States.

Louisianans voted yes to bar convicted felons, from seeking or holding public office until five years after completing their sentences. Voters in the state also voted to require an unanimous verdict of a 12-member jury for a felony conviction. The previous Jim Crow-era law allowed convictions when at least 10 of the 12 jurors agree.

In Colorado slavery can no longer be used as a punishment for any crime as voters opted to remove such language from the state Constitution. Article II, Section 26 of Colorado’s constitution has historically read there “shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,”

Now it will read “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude.”

Colorado District Attorney Dan Rubinstein opposed it as it could eliminate court-ordered community service.

“With most low-level offenses carrying jail, fines and community service as the only sentencing options, I fear that this action will result in more low-risk offenders filling our jails and would disproportionately incarcerate indigent offenders who lack the ability to pay fines,” Rubinstein recently said in a statement to KKCO 11 News.

The amendment was on the ballot two years ago but failed to pass due to confusing language.

Ohio Rejects Issue 1

In Ohio, though a recent poll showed that a near majority of voters supported Ohio State Issue 1—the proposed constitutional amendment that would change Ohio law to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison and promote more treatment of drug addiction—about 65 percent of voters rejected the amendment.

Ohio is among the top five states with the highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths.

Ohio chief Justice Maureen O’Connor called the proposed amendment a disaster, arguing that “Ohio may end up with some of the most lenient drug crime laws in the nation if this proposed constitutional amendment passes,”

Voters in Michigan approved legalizing recreational marijuana while those in North Dakota voted against it. Medical marijuana is now legal in Utah and Missouri.

Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Nevada expanded the rights of crime victims to their state constitutions in separate amendments. Some proposals would enshrine the right of crime victims to receive to receive timely notification of changes to the offender’s custodial status; others call for the right to be heard at plea or sentencing proceedings or any process that may result in the offender’s release; and the right to restitution.

The ACLU has called Marsy’s Laws unconstitutional.

J Gabriel Ware is a TCR news intern


Trump, Sessions Issue Voter Fraud Warnings

The president tweeted that anyone caught voting improperly would be subjected to “Maximum Criminal Penalties.” Critics, who say there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, complain that Trump is trying to intimidate voters.

President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued strong warnings about the threat of voter fraud in Tuesday’s elections. The statements echoed the president’s baseless claims that massive voter fraud marred his 2016 election and prompting accusations that his administration is trying to intimidate voters, reports the Washington Post. In a tweet, Trump said that law enforcement has been “strongly notified” to watch for “ILLEGAL VOTING.” He promised that anyone caught voting improperly would be subjected to “Maximum Criminal Penalties.” Sessions said “fraud in the voting process will not be tolerated. Fraud also corrupts the integrity of the ballot.” Trump falsely claimed that voter fraud is commonplace, saying, “There are a lot of people — a lot of people — my opinion, and based on proof — that try and get in illegally and actually vote illegally.” There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S., the Post says.

Voting rights advocates denounced Trump’s remarks as a blatant attempt to intimidate voters on the eve of Election Day. “I find this kind of conduct incredibly anti-patriotic,” said Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which successfully challenged several new voting restrictions this year. Anticipating possible problems, political parties, interest groups and voting rights organizations have organized “war rooms” to watch Tuesday’s elections unfold and recruited thousands of volunteer lawyers to monitor precincts. Sessions said the Justice Department will follow its usual protocol of sending monitors across the U.S. to protect against voter suppression, intimidation and discrimination; staff will travel to 35 jurisdictions in 19 states.


Pretrial Jail Inmates Can Vote, But It Can Be Difficult

Legally, detainees who fill out ballots before being convicted and sentenced are still eligible to vote, but confusion, fear, and a long list of logistical complications often stand in their way.

Most states prohibit people incarcerated for a felony conviction from voting. Twenty-two states also bar people on parole and/or probation, and 12 impose various sanctions that continue post-sentence. Those restrictions rarely apply to people held in jails, who are usually either awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanor offenses. Legally, detainees  who fill out ballots before being convicted and sentenced are still eligible to vote, but confusion, fear, and a long list of logistical complications often stand in their way, The Atlantic reports. The exact number of people in U.S. jails who are legally permitted to vote is unknown, but Chris Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociologist who has studied  “practical disenfranchisement,” believes that “a good portion” of the U.S. jail population, which hovers at around 600,000 people, retains the right.

It’s hard to know what portion of those eligible voters are not voting because they are unaware of their rights or because their rights are being denied. “There is no national organization that is the anchoring institution to ensure that residents that happen to be in jail on Election Day never lose their voting rights,” says Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project. Efforts to help potential voters in jail register or request voting materials “are very grassroots conversations,” she said. The process for voting in jails varies widely: from state to state, from county to county, and even from institution to institution. In California, Illinois, and Texas, detainees must submit a voter-registration form and an absentee or vote-by-mail request. In Massachusetts, people in jail are considered “specially qualified”: They don’t have to register to vote before casting a ballot. Other states and counties allow voters to list their place of residence as the jail itself. A local sheriff’s support could make or break a voter-registration drive or ballot-request program.


Felonies Block One-Tenth of Kentuckians From Voting

Florida on Tuesday may restore voting rights to 1.4 million residents who have completed their Sentences. That would leave only Kentucky and Iowa with lifetime bans on voting by those who have committed felonies.

Some 6.2 million U.S. citizens cannot vote or hold office because they have felony records. Only Kentucky, Iowa and Florida impose lifetime bans, and polls suggest that Floridians are poised to approve a constitutional amendment on Tuesday that would restore rights to 1.4 million residents who have completed their sentences, the New York Times reports. Since 1990, changing attitudes have led other states to ease bans on political participation by those with felony records. In Kentucky, nearly one in 10 adults, and one in four African Americans, has a felony record that bans them from voting for life, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group. It is the nation’s highest rate of black disenfranchisement, the group says, and among African-American males, the rate is considered even higher: an estimated one in three.

Those astounding rates result from the tough-on-crime ethos of the 1980s and 1990s, when tough penalties were imposed for nonviolent violations like low-volume drug sales and failure to pay alimony. The share of voting-age Kentuckians with felony records rose nearly fourfold from 1980 to 2010. Among black residents, it grew nearly sevenfold. Despite changes to sentencing guidelines seven years ago and a declining crime rate, the state’s prison population continues to rise, to more than 24,000 prisoners. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opposes voting rights for felons, saying, “Those who break our laws should not dilute the vote of law-abiding citizens.” Political scientists suggest that McConnell might not have won his seat had those with felony records been allowed to vote when he first sought the seat in 1984. Supporters of restoring voting rights argue that banning those with felony records from casting ballots removes an important incentive for them to rebuild their lives.