Criminal justice reformers cheer multiple election victories
NEW YORK (AP) - Nearly six months after George Floyd's death, proponents of criminal justice reform have welcomed the election of a handful of progressive prosecutors, the adoption of electoral initiatives to facilitate mass detention and the decriminalization of drugs in multiple states.
Voters also sent Black Lives Matter activists to Congress, restored the right to vote for ex-prisoners, and achieved further success in the protests that filled the streets of America last summer. The movement's leaders want to build on these successes in 2021.
The aim was to “build a multiracial coalition that can convert the motivation we saw on the streets into electoral power. And it worked, ”said Maurice Mitchell, Black Lives Movement strategist and National Director of the Working Families Party.
However, the results for 2020 weren't all victories. The reformers also saw setbacks, including a blow to the movement to devalue local police forces. Representative James Clyburn, the House majority whip from South Carolina, and other Democrats blamed the defensive rhetoric for the party's surprising loss of seats in the House of Representatives. Clyburn warned the idea could harm the larger BLM movement.
On election day, most Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, rejected the idea of cutting police budgets to advocate systemic racism in the judicial system.
The protests sparked by Floyd's death by Minneapolis police in May led to a demand from city officials, including those in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and New York City. But defunding seems unpopular when voters hear it arguing in the abstract, said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College in New York and author of "The End of Policing."
"In a number of places where people could vote on something specific, it turned out they were in favor of defusing the police, but not in those terms," Vitale said. He pointed to an election in Los Angeles County that reallocated money to services to keep people out of prison.
Measure J, approved by nearly 57% of Los Angeles voters, requires at least 10% of the county's budget to be devoted to community investment and alternatives to incarceration such as addiction treatment and other pre-trial services.
Across California, nearly 59% of voters approved Proposition 17, which restores the right to vote for previously incarcerated individuals who have not yet received parole.
"When our progressive vision was on the ballot, we won," said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of BLM and executive director of the BLM Global Network Foundation, based in Los Angeles.
The victories came against the backdrop of mass incarceration and police brutality, which took decades to build: almost 2.3 million Americans are imprisoned, blacks and Latin Americans disproportionately. And blacks are far more likely to be stopped, searched and / or killed by the police, as studies of criminal justice data have repeatedly shown.
With Ferguson uprising protester Cori Bush from St. Louis and progressive activist Mondaire Jones from New York en route to Congress, Cullors and other movement leaders believe they now have new advocates for sweeping federal reforms. The BREATHE Act, a bill drafted by the Black Lives Movement's policy table, would wipe federal funding for surplus military equipment that was routed to local police departments, among other things. The bill has not yet been introduced on Capitol Hill.
At the local level, victorious prosecutor candidates will honor their pledges to take or continue progressive action, such as refusing to prosecute low-level drug offenses, removing bail, and holding police accountable for brutality.
Seven of the eight prosecutor candidates approved by the Working Families Party easily won their races, including Monique Worrell, who ran for Orange-Osceola, Florida prosecutor, and José Garza, who ran for the district attorney in Travis County, Texas.
"There is no question that the people in this country have mostly spoken about their desire and the need to fix our broken criminal justice system," said Garza.
The elected district attorney, whose jurisdiction will include Austin, has promised not to prosecute any drug possession or sale of a gram or less. In Austin, this could have a huge impact on the racial differences between inmates at the county jail, Garza believes.
Eli Savit, who was elected prosecutor in Washtenaw County, Michigan, said he was already working hard on the transition. In its jurisdiction, Ann Arbor voted to decriminalize psychedelic plants and mushrooms, including magic mushrooms.
Although Savit did not know how many magic mushroom cases are currently being prosecuted, he said those law enforcement actions "will sink to zero".
The era of mass detention has been largely fueled by prosecutors across the country, Savit said. "Now that we see a statement ... the key is to get the prosecution to turn the page about mass detention."
In Los Angeles County, George Gascón, a criminal justice reformer who previously served as a district attorney in San Francisco and deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, defeated acting prosecutor Jackie Lacey, whose campaign was heavily funded by a union representing state prison guards . The county has the largest DA office in the country and covers a jurisdiction with more than 10 million residents.
The legalization and decriminalization of marijuana also gained great success. Four states, including New Jersey and Arizona, have passed referenda approving cannabis for recreational use. Voters made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.
Several cities advocated greater police accountability. Voters in two cities in California and two cities in Pennsylvania joined those in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Columbus, Ohio to approve voting actions to tighten civilian law enforcement oversight.
Jim Burch, president of the bipartisan National Police Foundation, which supports the advancement and reform of policing through science and innovation, said the elections had demonstrated that voters want fundamental changes in public safety.
However, he said the group had concerns about the use of electoral initiatives "to drive policy changes that are complex and subject to the influence of wealth and populist ideas".
Burch said he was encouraged to see the recognition "that proper policing is important," adding that "the abolition of the police force or mass discharge of the police force is a jerky response that could lead to serious problems and further inequalities" .
Don't rely on activists to drop their push to relieve the police, said Jessica Byrd, who leads the Movement for Black Lives' electoral justice project.
"We are not going to disappear under the cloud of unity that so often informs us of which parts of our agenda should be seriously considered," she said.
Morrison is a member of AP's Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
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