While we wait for final confirmation that Joe Biden won the presidency, one thing is clear: this election was a win for criminal justice reform.
State and Local Criminal Justice Wins
Around the country, drug reform initiatives passed. New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota now count themselves among the 15 states, plus Washington DC, that have legalized marijuana. In Mississippi, voters passed a medical marijuana initiative.
Oregon legalized psilocybin for therapeutic use, while Washington D.C. decriminalized possession. And Oregon decriminalized personal possession of heroin and cocaine, sending the clear message that drug addiction requires treatment, not prison cells.
Reformist prosecutors swept into office in large cities including Austin, Los Angeles, and Orlando. Two former defense lawyers — Jose Garza in Austin, Texas, Jose Garza, and Monique Worrell vowed to reduce pretrial detention and stop pursuing low-level drug offenders. In Los Angeles, at the time of this writing, reformer George Gascon seems set for the win. While reformers did not win everywhere, the election of progressive prosecutors in these large cities will have a tremendous impact on criminal justice policy for hundreds of thousands of people.
Sheriff races also saw progressives added to their ranks. In Georgia, three African American men — Keybo Taylor, Craig Owens, and Reginald Scandreet — were elected as the first Black sheriffs in their respective counties. In Cincinnati, Charmaine McGuffey became the first woman and LGBTQ person to hold the office; McGuffey ran as a Democrat with a vision of reform. Look for changes in jurisdictions where reformist sheriffs prevailed.
Police reform was also on the ballot. California, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania were among the states where voters approved police reform measures. Voters passed measures to increase police accountability, require body cameras, and consider budgeting changes.
Criminal justice reform is largely a state and local issue, and these are the results of just a smattering of races from around the country. But here’s the truth: when voters come out in support of reform, real change can happen on the ground.
Biden’s Win is a Win for Criminal Justice
Biden has a lot to repair from the damage caused by the 1994 Crime Bill. But he is off to a promising start with an election platform that spelled out an impressive and visionary progressive reform agenda.
Of particular note for those of us who oppose capital punishment: Biden’s platform included a commitment to end the federal death penalty. This is no small thing. The Trump Administration reactivated federal executions — dormant for almost 20 years — just before the Republican convention, and they’ve been on a federal killing spree ever since. Seven people have been executed by the federal government since July and three more people are scheduled for execution in the upcoming weeks. Among them is Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row and the first woman to face execution in nearly 70 years.
The Path Forward
Criminal justice means far more than crime and punishment. It is a referendum on race and poverty, drug addiction and mental health, and budget expenditures. In the pandemic, where COVID is raging in prisons and jails, criminal justice policy is also a measure of compassion and public safety.
While criminal justice reform still has a long way to go, I’m calling this election a win for justice and the pathway forward.