There was much to celebrate after this week’s election, especially the strides made in criminal justice reform.
In Louisiana, Amendment 2 passed easily, which means that a unanimous jury is now required for a conviction in a felony trial. Previously, a jury only needed 10 of 12 votes, even to sentence a defendant to life in prison.
Amendment 4 passed in Florida, which means nearly 1.5 million former felons who served their time will now be able to vote in that state, although those convicted of murder or sex offenses remain disenfranchised. It’s estimated that almost 20 percent of black Floridians had been been barred from voting under the old law.
And, as hard as it may be to believe, Colorado residents abolished slavery this week when they passed Amendment A. The amendment asked “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and thereby prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in all circumstances?” The answer was a resounding yes, thanks to its bipartisan legislative support. What little opposition there was stemmed from concerns that it could interfere or put an end to prison labor, but NPR reports that “the measure’s backers say such programs wouldn’t be affected because inmates voluntarily agree to take part.”
Several states elected new governors who favor abolishing the death penalty, calling a moratorium, or are open to instituting reforms. In Kansas, Democratic Governor-elect Laura Kelly and Lt. Governor-elect Lynn Rogers, also a Democrat, are pro-abolition, as is Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown was reelected, so the moratorium in that state will continue; just as it will stay in place in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolfe, who instituted it in 2014, was reelected. Nevada Governor-elect Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, has not publicly opposed the death penalty, but has indicated he has concerns about it.
And California’s new governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, has publicly stated his opposition to the death penalty, and was the first state official, as lieutenant governor, to endorse Prop 62, which would have repealed the death penalty in 2016.
District attorney races showed a slight trend toward reform, with winners in Boston, Dallas, and San Antonio indicating they favored more progressive policies than their predecessors. In Missouri, longtime St. Louis County DA Robert McCulloch, who chose not to file charges against the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, was soundly defeated by Wesley Bell, who had pledged to never seek a death sentence. Bell won with nearly 57 percent of the vote.
In California, longtime, scandal-plagued Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas was defeated by a former prosecutor in Rackaukas’s office. Todd Spitzer’s specific views on criminal justice are not well-known, but he has long been affiliated with the “victims’ rights” movement. His defeat of Rackauckas comes five months after San Bernardino DA Michael Ramos was defeated by Jason Anderson, a former prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney who ran as a reformer. Both Orange and San Bernardino counties have been dubbed “outlier counties” by the Fair Punishment Project for their excessive prosecution of death penalty cases. It remains to be seen whether that label remains under new leadership.