November 9, 2018
Setting aside the bluster of soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump, the big winner on election night was criminal justice reform. Ballot initiatives focused on softening the impact of crime and punishment were successful in blue states and red states.
In Florida, voters approved Amendment 4, a measure that restores voting rights for people who have completed their sentences after being convicted of a felony, excluding those convicted of murder or certain sex offenses.
According to Vox, the Sentencing Project, a non-profit advocacy group, estimated that nearly 1.5 million people in Florida could not vote in the midterm elections because of a conviction — about 9.2 percent of the state’s voting age population.
Could those potential voters have had an impact on the very competitive Governor and U.S. Senate races in Florida?
Marijuana advocates scored a number of substantial ballot victories including Michigan, which became the 10th state in the nation to approve recreational use of marijuana.
“Michigan will be the first state in the Midwest to end marijuana prohibition and replace it with a system in which marijuana is regulated for adult use,” Marijuana Policy Project deputy director Matthew Schweich, told the Washington Post.
With the addition of Michigan, nearly 80 million Americans — 25 percent of the total U.S. population — live in a state or jurisdiction that has legalized recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana was also approved by voters in Missouri and Utah.
Not all news was good for marijuana advocates. North Dakota voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative that would have legalized marijuana without setting any possession limits or regulatory structure.
In Ohio, voters rejected an initiative that would have lessened the severity of some drug offenses.
Ohio prosecutors, judges, coroners and even Gov. John Kasich urged a “no” vote on the proposal, which would have reduced certain drug possession charges to misdemeanors. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the measure failed by a margin of nearly two-to-one.
An initiative in Washington will make it less difficult for prosecutors to pursue police officers who unlawfully use deadly force. Approval of Initiative 940 means that prosecutors will no longer have to prove law enforcement officers acted with “evil intent” or “malice” when considering whether to file criminal charges such as manslaughter. According to the Seattle Times, Washington was the only state with such restrictive language.
Abraham Lincoln once said “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” Colorado wasn’t on Lincoln’s mind when he said that, but on election day — more than 150 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment — Colorado voters officially abolished slavery.
Colorado is one of more than a dozen states whose Constitutions allow involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment. Colorado will no longer permit prisoners to do slave labor, reported The Associated Press.
A constitutional amendment to end non-unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana was approved by the state’s voters. Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that permitted a less than unanimous verdict in a criminal trial.
The less-than-unanimous verdict was rooted in the state’s ardent racism that intensified after the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era.
The amendment was pushed through the Louisiana Legislature with strong support from groups that rarely collaborate. On the right, supporters included the Christian conservative, Louisiana Family Forum, and the Koch Brother’s political organization, Americans for Prosperity. On the left, supporters included the American Civil Liberties Union and Innocence Project New Orleans.
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.
Marsy’s Law aims to ensure that victims and their family members are informed about all criminal proceedings, present and heard, and protected from the accused.
Finally, in the wake of the GOP’s election day loss of the House — a notable casualty surfaced in the criminal justice system — President Trump asked his embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. He agreed, and so begins a new chapter in the tumultuous investigation of Russia, the president, the White House and the president’s advisors.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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