National headlines don’t tell the full story; reform continues to win across the country.
By Udi Ofer
Last month, voters in Shelby County, Tennessee, ousted an 11-year incumbent district attorney with a national reputation for being overly-punitive. Amy Weirich aggressively pursued the death penalty, fought against bail reform, sent more children to adult court than any other prosecutor in the state, and had been admonished in the past for prosecutorial misconduct. She also prosecuted Pamela Moses, a Black woman who registered to vote erroneously and ended up with a six-year sentence.
Voters in one of the largest counties in the South, with a population of nearly one million people, rejected Weirich by a vote of 56-44 percent, choosing Steve Mulroy, a candidate who ran on a criminal justice reform platform. But unless you live in Memphis or the surrounding areas, you likely missed the story. These days, there aren’t many headlines touting criminal justice reform in the national media. In contrast, you can find lots of stories on the backlash to reform.
But the national headlines don’t tell the full story: On the contrary, criminal legal reform continues to win in many parts of the country. The number of people incarcerated is down 22.4 percent (or 1,588,400 fewer persons) since 2010, much of it due to the hundreds of laws passed to reform the criminal legal system and the election of policymakers committed to smart reforms. On the local and state levels, voters and lawmakers have kept up this trend.
Reform Prosecutors Fend Off Attacks
On the electoral side in 2022, voters chose reform prosecutor candidates from North Carolina to Tennessee, Iowa, and California. Voters continue to show strong support for district attorneys who work to reduce the footprint of the criminal legal system. In Durham, North Carolina, prosecutor Satana Deberry won her reelection primary in a landslide, despite negative attacks on her reform record, which include bail reform and clearing thousands of outstanding court fines and fees. On May 17, 79 percent of voters chose Deberry on the promise that she will continue her reform-oriented policies, such as her pledge to not criminalize people who seek abortions. She is running uncontested in November.
Meanwhile in Iowa, Kimberly Graham also won her primary election for Polk County prosecutor, promising to not prosecute marijuana possession and to not seek cash bail for low level arrests, among other reforms. She is expected to win in November.
In California, reform prosecutors representing jurisdictions larger than San Francisco won their primary elections. Diana Becton was reelected in Contra Costa on a platform of creating more fairness and equity. Former criminal defense attorney Pamela Price received the most votes in Alameda County, running on a platform of tackling racial disparities in the criminal legal system and not prosecuting children as adults.
In Vermont, Chittenden County (Burlington) prosecutor Sarah George won reelection on a platform of continuing her reform policies, including expanding restorative justice practices, opposing seeking cash bail, and not prosecuting arrests discovered through “non-public safety traffic stops” because they disproportionately impact people of color. She came under attack by police unions and challenger Ted Kenney but prevailed in Vermont’s largest county by a vote of 53-33 percent.
Legislative Victories For Criminal Justice Reform
But it’s not just reform prosecutors who are winning. This year we also saw important victories in state legislatures, including removing barriers for formerly incarcerated people to reintegrate back into society, and advancing marijuana legalization with a racial justice focus.
Colorado became the seventh state to pass Clean Slate legislation, which would allow for the automatic sealing of arrest records that do not result in conviction, as well as sealing of many other records post-conviction. Similar laws have passed in Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Utah.
Connecticut passed a law providing anti-discrimination protections for people living with a criminal record. The new law prevents job licensure boards from instituting blanket bans against groups of people based on their record of arrest or conviction, and would instead require licensure boards to make individual assessments. Oklahoma also passed reforms that include an automatic expungement bill in certain cases, expected to impact more than 100,000 Oklahomans.
Marijuana legalization continues to have broad public support, and in November, voters in about half a dozen states may be able to vote on marijuana legalization. For example, in Maryland, voters will have the chance to enact a first-of-its kind Cannabis Repair and Reinvestment Fund, which will allocate millions on an annual basis to communities most impacted by the war on marijuana, and also creates automatic expungement for past simple possession convictions and more.
Rhode Island passed marijuana legalization legislation, and did so in a manner that advanced racial justice and criminal justice reform by including automatic expungement in its final bill language.
These are just some examples of progress – there are many more (such as on juvenile justice reform) and they won’t be the last. These newly enacted laws will not end mass incarceration; much more is needed. But these successes show that voters on the right and left continue to choose criminal justice reform, and state lawmakers on the right and left continue to pass common sense legislation. And they are doing so despite the backlash on the national level. This is the full story of 2022.
Udi Ofer was the Former Director, Justice Division, ACLU National Political and Advocacy Department