NEW YORK — Almost six months after the death of George Floyd, criminal justice reform advocates are cheering the election of a handful of progressive prosecutors, the passage of ballot initiatives designed to ease mass incarceration and the decriminalization of drugs in several states.
Voters also sent Black Lives Matter activists to Congress, restored voting rights to former prisoners and scored other gains sought by the protests that filled American streets last summer. Leaders in the movement want to build on those successes in 2021.
The aim was to “build a multiracial coalition that could translate the movement power we saw in the streets into electoral might. And it worked,” said Maurice Mitchell, a Movement for Black Lives strategist and national director of the Working Families Party.
The 2020 results were not all victories, however. Reformers also saw setbacks, including a blow to the movement to defund local police departments. Rep. James Clyburn, the House majority whip from South Carolina, and other Democrats blamed the defunding rhetoric for the party’s surprise loss of seats in the House. Clyburn warned that the idea could harm the larger BLM movement.
Going into Election Day, most Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, rejected the idea of reducing police budgets to answer for systemic racism in the justice system.
The protests sparked by Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May thrust the defunding demand before city councils, including those in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and New York City. But defunding appears to be unpopular when voters hear it discussed in abstract, said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College in New York and author of “The End of Policing.”
“In a whole bunch of places, when people were able to vote on something concrete, it turned out they were in favor of defunding the police, but just not in those terms,” Vitale said. He pointed to a ballot measure in Los Angeles County that reallocates money to services to keep people out of jail.
Measure J, which was approved by nearly 57% of voters in Los Angeles, requires at least 10% of the county’s budget to be earmarked for community investments and alternatives to incarceration, such as addiction treatment and other pretrial services.
Across California, nearly 59% of voters approved Proposition 17, which restores voting rights to formerly incarcerated people who have yet to complete 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, who is from Los Angeles.
The victories happened against a backdrop of mass incarceration and police brutality that took decades to construct: Almost 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated, Black and Latinx people disproportionately so. And Black people are far more likely to be pulled over, searched and or killed by police, studies of criminal justice data have repeatedly shown.
With Ferguson Uprising protester Cori Bush of St. Louis and progressive activist Mondaire Jones of New York headed to Congress, Cullors and other movement leaders believe they now have new champions for sweeping legislative justice reforms at the federal level. The BREATHE Act, a bill drafted by the policy table of the Movement for Black Lives, would erase federal funding for excess military equipment that has been funneled to local police departments, among other aims. The bill has not yet been introduced on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, at the local level, winning prosecutor candidates are set to make good on their pledges to take up or continue progressive policies such as declining to prosecute low-level drug offenses, eliminating cash bail and holding police accountable for brutality.
Seven of the eight district attorney candidates endorsed by the Working Families Party easily won their races, including Monique Worrell, who ran for Orange-Osceola state’s attorney in Florida, and José Garza, who ran for district attorney in Travis County, Texas.
“There’s no question that, in this country, people have spoken overwhelmingly about their desire and the need for us to fix our broken criminal justice system,” Garza said.
The district attorney-elect, whose jurisdiction will include Austin, has pledged not to prosecute drug possession or sales of a gram or less. In Austin, that could have a major impact on the racial disparity among inmates at the county jail, Garza believes.
Eli Savit, who was elected prosecutor in Washtenaw County, Michigan, said he was already hard at work on the transition. In his jurisdiction, Ann Arbor voted to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi, including magic mushrooms.
Although Savit did not know how many magic mushroom cases were currently being pursued, he said those prosecutions “will go down to zero.”
The era of mass incarceration has been fueled largely by prosecutors around the country, Savit said. “Now that we are seeing a reckoning … getting prosecutors in place to turn the page on mass incarceration is critical.”
In Los Angeles County, George Gascón, a criminal justice reformer who previously served as district attorney in San Francisco and as assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, defeated incumbent DA Jackie Lacey, whose campaign was heavily funded by a union representing state prison guards. The county has the nation’s largest DA’s office, covering a jurisdiction with more than 10 million residents.
Marijuana legalization and decriminalization also won big. Four states, including New Jersey and Arizona, passed referendums allowing recreational cannabis. Voters made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Several cities embraced more police accountability. Voters in two California cities and two Pennsylvania cities joined those in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Columbus, Ohio, to approve ballot measures to toughen civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies.
Jim Burch, president of the nonpartisan National Police Foundation, which supports the advancement and reform of policing through science and innovation, said the election proved that voters want fundamental changes in public safety.
However, he said, the group has concerns about the use of ballot initiatives “to advance policy changes that are complex and subject to influence from wealth and populist ideas.”
Burch said he is encouraged to see the acknowledgment “that appropriate policing matters” and added that “abolishing the police or mass defunding the police is a knee-jerk reaction that could lead to serious problems and further inequities.”
Don’t count on activists to drop their push for defunding police, said Jessica Byrd, who leads the Electoral Justice Project of the Movement for Black Lives.
“We are not going to go away, under the cloud of unity that so often gaslights us about what parts of our agenda should be seriously considered,” she said.
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