4 Ways We Voted For a Better Criminal Justice System

From reducing incarceration levels in Oklahoma to keeping kids out of adult prisons in California, voters gave a few significant wins to the rights of the incarcerated.
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Photo by imaginima / istock.

The day after Donald Trump’s election, the stock prices of two companies that run private prisons shot up in value. It’s a harbinger of a new political regime that seems likely to set back the movement for the rights of prisoners—current, future, and former.

Trump’s election was not the only setback for criminal justice: California voters rejected Proposition 62, which would have repealed the death penalty in the most populous state and approved Proposition 66, which speeds up the process. Voters in Nebraska decided to bring back the death penalty, which had been repealed by an earlier measure. Oklahoma voters strengthened the state’s power to impose it. In Colorado, voters narrowly defeated Amendment T, which would have banned unpaid labor in prisons.

And yet, Tuesday’s election also saw a few significant wins for the rights of the incarcerated.  

1. Oklahoma chose to reduce incarceration—and invest in preventing it.

In Oklahoma, voters approved two ballot measures—Questions 780 and 781—aimed at reducing the state’s soaring incarceration levels and reinvesting the resulting savings toward programs tackling recidivism.

At 700 inmates per 100,000 people, Oklahoma maintains the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country. Comparatively, the national rate is 471.

The passage of Question 780 reclassifies some low-level offenses—like drug possession and property offenses—as misdemeanors, not felonies. The savings is expected to decrease the $500 million taxpayers shell out for corrections each year.

Question 781 redirects that cost savings toward initiatives to decrease recidivism, including rehabilitation programs intended to address root causes of crime, for drug addiction and mental health conditions, as well as job training and education programs that help ex-offenders stay out of prison. 

2. California voted to keep thousands of minors from being tried as adults.

Back in the 1990s, politicians were winning races by promising to lock up more people. In 2000, toward the end of that era, California voters passed a measure that gave prosecutors the right to quickly make judgments about which minors should be tried as adults. As a result, hundreds of kids each year receive harsher sentences than they might if judges still had control.

Proposition 57, which passed with more than 63 percent of the vote, will end that.

The controversial measure also allows more prisoners classified as nonviolent to qualify for parole, while increasing access to shorter sentences for things like good behavior. Gov. Jerry Brown expects it to significantly cut the state’s prison population of more than 129,000 people.

3. Massachusetts, Nevada, California, and Maine legalized recreational marijuana.

Marijuana was on the ballot this year in several states: Voters in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine chose to legalize its recreational use. A similar initiative in Arizona failed, while North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida approved measures legalizing the use of medical marijuana. Montana voters loosened restrictions on it.

Marijuana has been quasi-legal in California since 1996, when it became legal to buy and consume marijuana if referred by a doctor. In 2010, another initiative reduced simple marijuana possession to an infraction, lowering misdemeanor arrest rates by 85 percent statewide. But advocates for Proposition 64 argued that the number of people being sent to prison for marijuana-related offenses—and the number serving time—was still too high.

In California, Proposition 64 allows people 21 and over to use marijuana, establishes taxes for growing and selling the plant, and makes it possible for people convicted for now-legal marijuana-related offenses to reduce their sentences and clear their records.

The pro-legalization group Drug Policy Alliance estimates that more than 6,000 people currently serving time could be eligible for sentence reductions. Another 1 million people with prior marijuana-related felonies or misdemeanors can petition to have their records modified or cleared—record expungements that would improve access to jobs and housing.

4. New Mexico changed the rules on bail.

This one is so complicated, you’ll want to celebrate with your law books out. 

New Mexico’s Constitutional Amendment 1, which passed with an overwhelming 87 percent of the vote, changes two fundamental rules related to the conditions under which defendants can be denied bail. First, and problematically, it allows courts greater freedom in deciding who is dangerous or a flight risk (previously, bail could only be denied in certain felony cases). But second, the amendment prohibits courts from holding defendants who are not considered threats or flight risks just because they can’t make bail.

That’s great news for the many people who languish in New Mexico prisons because they don’t have bail money. According to a report by the New Mexico Legislative Council Service, that’s 40 percent of the people behind bars there.

But opponents have raised doubts about the amendment’s power to achieve real reform of the cash bail system. In fact, the measure’s final wording won the support of the bail bond industry itself, while driving away many defense attorneys. For many reformers, the change doesn’t go far enough.

Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told the Huffington Post: “Our organization would prefer and advocate for a more direct way of changing the culture by creating laws that simply eliminate monetary bonds, or remove the profit incentive from the system and instead run on a system where bonds are administered by courts.” 

Nevertheless, proponents hope the change means hundreds will waste less time behind bars.

Editor’s note: This story originally stated that the prison population in California about 180,000, when the correct figure is about 129,000. This error has been corrected.