A Winning Election for Criminal Justice Reform

Most of the focus this election season was on the Senate and the House in an election seen by many as a referendum on Trump that would set the playing field for 2020. Not as widely reported was the incredible success nationwide of ballot initiatives aimed at progressive criminal justice reform.

Perhaps most notably, in Florida, where both the Senate and Governor’s race were won by the GOP on razor thin margins, voters approved Amendment 4, allowing felons who had completed their sentences to restore their right to vote. Estimates suggest that almost 10% of the state’s voting age population was ineligible to vote in this election due to a prior felony conviction. In a state split so closely along party lines that so often plays an oversized role in Presidential races, this reform could have enormous ramifications in future elections.

Marijuana related initiatives also saw success with Michigan becoming the tenth state in the nation and the first in the Midwest to approve recreational marijuana use while Missouri and Utah, anything but liberal jurisdictions, approved medicinal marijuana use. It was not an across the board victory for drug law reform as North Dakota voters soundly defeated an initiative to legalize marijuana and Ohio voters resisted an initiative to reduce the penalties on many drug offenses.

Louisiana voters, meanwhile, ended the state’s allowance of non-unanimous juries in criminal trials. The practice was deeply rooted in the institutionalization of racism that followed the Civil War. Interest groups from both the left and right supported the initiative, with the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and the Christian conservative organization the Louisiana Family Network joining unlikely allies at the ACLU and Innocence Project in support of the change.

Not everything was great news for the accused, however, as voters in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina and Oklahoma approved a ballot measure known as Marsy’s Law — the so-called crime victim’s bill of rights. The bill, a version of which was enacted by California voters in 2008, gives victims of crime increased standing in criminal cases, a practice that threatens the impartiality of the justice system as prosecutors, who are supposed to represent the state rather than victims, increasingly base decisions on the will of crime victims.

Still, all in all, it seems the long arc of the moral university bent a little further towards justice on November 8, 2018.