Americans took to the streets for extended demonstrations this summer to protest police violence and racial injustice. Then, on Election Day, they took to the voting booth to endorse criminal justice and policing changes.
These votes, taken together, signal that after a summer of protest brought renewed scrutiny to the justice system, many Americans were open to rethinking how it functions — particularly on the state and local level, where policies have a stark impact on how people interact with the justice system.
“It was a pretty good day for meaningful change in criminal justice reform,” said Ronald Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University and a criminal justice expert. “The priorities I was watching didn’t win everywhere, but they won a lot more than they lost.”
George Floyd’s death in May set off a wave of protests decrying policing tactics. Five months later, voters in several cities — including some that experienced significant demonstrations — approved measures that would increase how local police departments are scrutinized and investigated.
Voters in Oakland, Calif., moved to create an inspector general’s office outside the police force to review officer misconduct. In Columbus, Ohio, voters passed an amendment creating a civilian police review board and an inspector general. San Diegans supported replacing a police review board with a commission that would have subpoena power and the authority to investigate police misconduct.
These votes were not exclusively in big cities. In Kyle, Tex., outside Austin, voters overwhelmingly passed a proposition requiring police policies to be reviewed by the city council and put under a committee’s oversight.
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In Philadelphia, which was rocked before the election by demonstrations and looting after a police shooting, voters decisively supported a ballot question calling for the city’s police “to end the practice of unconstitutional stop and frisk” and another supporting a police oversight commission.
These proposals have not passed without controversy. A ballot measure creating a police oversight board in Portland, Ore., which has had protests nearly every night for months, passed with about 4 in 5 voters backing it. The union representing Portland police officers denounced it as “flawed” and filed a grievance, arguing that the city must negotiate changes to discipline with them first.
Voters in several places supported loosening drug laws. Oregon voters backed a ballot measure decriminalizing small amounts of drugs including cocaine and heroin. Four states — New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota — legalized recreational marijuana. Voters in Mississippi legalized it for medical use.
In some places, voters took aim at other elements of law enforcement. San Francisco voters chose to ditch a city charter requirement that the police department maintain a certain number of officers, replacing it with regular reviews of its staffing levels.
In King County, Wash., home to Seattle — which saw extensive protests this summer and the brief creation of an autonomous, police-free zone — voters backed amendments making sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, position, and letting the county council dictate his or her duties.
The efforts for change were not a uniform success, falling short in many places. Voters in California rejected a proposition to eliminate cash bail. Oklahoma voters rejected a measure that would have blocked increased sentences for prior convictions in some cases.
Many conservative sheriffs also easily won reelection. In Pinellas County, Fla., Democrats raised large amounts of money to unseat Republican Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, but he was reelected with more than 60 percent of the vote, according to Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs Association.
“People are very loath to trust their leaders,” Thompson said, “until they show them repeatedly they can do their job. That weighed in favor of incumbents in a lot of places.”
Thompson said he thought the “law-and-order” trend has regrouped with an eye toward, “Are we doing it right?”
Voters in Oakland County, Mich., reelected their conservative sheriff. They also brought a reform-minded prosecutor into office, part of a recent trend of people running to serve as district attorneys on platforms of reducing or eliminating cash bail, cutting down on marijuana prosecutions and opposing death sentences.
These officials, often called “progressive prosecutors,” have won office across the country in recent years, drawing sharp pushback from the Trump administration, police unions and some colleagues who denounce their policies.
In perhaps the most closely watched district attorney’s race, reform proponent George Gascón won in Los Angeles County, taking over the largest prosecutor’s office in the country.
Gascón was one of at least 22 reform-minded prosecutors elected in places including Orlando, Tucson and Portland. Several races are still not called.
Change supporters were heartened by prosecutors — including Kim Foxx in Chicago and Mark Gonzalez in Corpus Christi, Tex. — who were reelected despite heavy opposition and criticism they had drawn in some cases.
“That people watched how these prosecutors worked and saw what they can do, and then voted for four more years — it’s important,” Larry Krasner, the liberal Philadelphia district attorney, said in an interview. “This is not just about the people who are getting elected, there is a grass-roots movement that is national.”
Krasner said opposition to mass incarceration has driven much of the support for reform prosecutors, particularly in urban areas. But he said it was “really exciting and heartening” that reform advocates were winning in more diverse and smaller locations, pointing to the San Luis Valley of Colorado and four small counties in Georgia. Among the winners in the latter was Keith Higgins of Brunswick, who unseated District Attorney Jackie Johnson after she faced criticism for her handling of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by three White men in February.
“It’s huge,” said Miriam Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution, which supports reform prosecutors. Many, she said, were elected in 2016 and reelected this year. “Communities want to see a different vision for our justice system and they want to see police held accountable.”
These new prosecutors have pledged significant changes, including promising to abandon cash bail or drug distribution charges.
“These are messages,” Krinsky said, “that four or five years ago would not have been part of the conversation.”
Some change-minded challengers fell short against incumbents, including in Cincinnati; Charleston, S.C.; Topeka, Kan.; and Maricopa County, Ariz. But overall, it was “clear that criminal justice reform won up and down the ballot,” said José Garza, the district attorney-elect of Travis County, Tex., which includes Austin.
“Here in Texas it’s happening because, for decades, regular people, people of color, working people, have been organizing, raising these issues, lifting up the inequality that exists in our system,” he said in an interview. “Making clear the status quo has not been making us safer.”
Garza said he would try to end cash bail and pledged not to prosecute drug distribution of a gram or less, regardless of the substance, because those caught with such small amounts are usually only users. He also vowed to change how the office approaches police misconduct, because he said it erodes trust in the legal system.
“All of this is with an eye toward what keeps our community more safe,” he said.
While some of these overhaul measures and candidates fell short, the overall outcomes across the country suggested a greater openness to other approaches toward criminal justice and law enforcement than the long-typical tough-on-crime stance, said Wright, the law professor.
“What it means is there’s a wider range of possibilities now,” he said. “For a long time, we had a very narrow band of possible outcomes that were politically viable. Everybody was running — just everybody, local, state, national — was running as hard as they could in one direction, which was, how much can we devote to prison and how many years of prison time can we use.”
This year’s votes, he said, show there is clearly room for more “experimentation with other strategies on public safety.”
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