Criminal Justice Election Recap

Election day 2020 was a mixed bag, but obviously the biggest prize was won. We will finally be rid of this national shame in the White House. As usual, you can find lots written about the Presidential and other national elections elsewhere, so I’ll be focusing on races and initiatives in the criminal justice realm.

California signaled its continuing commitment to criminal justice reform by soundly defeating Proposition 20, an initiative designed to roll back many of the hard fought victories of the last few years. Prop. 17, which restores felons right to vote after paying their debt to society passed with 58% of the vote. And Prop. 25 also failed. This was an initiative that could take up a whole post. It split criminal justice reform advocates with the California Public Defenders Association and many elected Democrats supporting the initiative that would have ended money bail in favor of an algorithmic approach to pre-trial release, but major questions about the bias of those algorithms led to opposition from the ACLU, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and other reform groups. I count this defeat as a win for progressive criminal justice policy.

In Los Angeles, George Gascon denied District Attorney Jackie Lacey a third term running on a platform of ending the death penalty and no longer charging juveniles as adults. It is hard to overstate the importance of a progressive prosecutor being in charge of the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office. Despite the generally liberal demographic of Los Angeles County, its prosecutors have long been tough-on-crime types and Los Angeles has long accounted for a disproportionate number of those sent to California’s death row. It seems clear that this win would never have been possible without the increased scrutiny on police and prosecutors sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

Los Angeles also passed Measure J, which redirects county budget from incarceration to community investment, social services, and incarceration alternatives.

Elsewhere, in California, San Diego voters passed Measure B, creating a new Commission on Police Practices with broad authority to investigate instances of Police Misconduct. San Francisco passed both Proposition D and E. D created an oversight board and an inspector general's office to review the conduct and misconduct of the sheriff's department as well as in-custody deaths. E eliminated the requirement that the city employ a certain minimum number of police officers in any given budget year, allowing local officials more freedom to evaluate police staffing needs.

Nationwide, we saw much of the same. Columbus, OH created a civilian review board with authority to investigate claims of police misconduct. Portland, OR also created a police oversight board that can both investigate and impose disciplinary action in instances of police misconduct. Statewide, Oregon further decriminalized possession of drugs, becoming the first state in the country to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and directed funds from legalized marijuana to drug addiction and recovery programs. Both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania created police review bodies. Orange-Osceola County in Florida rejected a candidate who stated he didn’t believe the county needed criminal justice reform and elected a candidate who ran on a platform of ending unnecessary incarceration for nonviolent crimes and holding police accountable for misconduct. Travis County, TX elected a former public defender in a race where police use of force was a key issue.

Maricopa County, the former home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio saw a race pitting the Democrat, Paul Penzone, who unseated Arpaio against one Arpaio’s former deputies. Penzone won. In Charleston County, SC, the incumbent since 1988 has never faced a challenger in the general election, he lost to a former deputy who objected to the way local police handled racial justice protests earlier in the year. In Gwinnet County, GA, the incumbent supported cooperation between ICE and law enforcement, he lost to his opponent, the county’s first black sheriff, who did not.

It was not all roses and sunshine, however.

Kentucky passed its own version of Marsy’s Law, the misguided so-called Victim’s Rights Bill that California passed years ago. Oklahoma voted down an amendment to the state Constitution that would have reduced the ability of prosecutors to seek longer, “enhanced” sentences for a variety of crimes.

DeKalb County, IL reelected its incumbent prosecutor in a race against a progressive candidate, as did Johnson County, KS.

Brevard County, FL rejected a Democratic challenger in its Sheriff race who advocated police use of body cameras. Pinellas County, FL similarly rebuffed a challenger who sought to focus more on community policing and addressing systemic racism in policing.

All in all, the night was a clear win for criminal justice reform advocates. The winds of change continue to blow.

Categories: