A Good Sign for Criminal Justice Reform and Progressive Policy

One of the things we sometimes lose sight of during the “we need change now” and “but it’s politically difficult” discussion at the Presidential level is that a lot of real change happens at the local level. I’m convinced, for example, that the rising number of Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates in Virginia who ran on decriminalizing cannabis and criminal justice reform in general allowed the General Assembly to take action. They could see voters from both sides of the political spectrum support these campaigns, and this gave them “permission” in a way.

These local elections also matter in the sense that they help the Progressive coalition build a bench of candidates and elected officials with the experience and chops to run for higher office. Today’s Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney is tomorrow’s Virginia Attorney General.

This played out in Oregon last night, when Mike Schmidt won a District Attorney race in Multomah County (Portland area) by a landslide on a very progressive platform.

“…in arguing that the legislature should repeal mandatory minimums, he presented the change as a way to chip away at DAs’ tremendous power. ‘When sentences become mandatory,’ he said, ‘whoever makes the charging decision essentially makes the sentencing decision.’

He also expressed support for other statewide reforms, including an end to cash bail, a ballot initiative that would decriminalize the personal possession of most drugs, and voting rights for all. He is among a growing list of candidates who are winning DA races after stating their view that incarcerated people should retain the right to vote, a significant turnaround in the issue’s national politics that matches what law enforcement officials say in Maine and Vermont.” (Emphasis mine).

I came across this through a post by DJW, a writer at Lawyers, Guns, & Money, a more or less academic blog focusing on Constitutional law, national security, and economics. I’d like to highlight a point he makes in the post. We generally think of voting as an individual right. DJW suggests we should also think of voting as power exercised by social groups.

“But more importantly (in my view), if we think about about voting as a kind of power held and wielded by social groups, and we should, the persistent social fact of uneven prosecution of crimes across relevant social groups necessarily puts felon disenfranchisement at odds with political equality, even if you’re indifferent to individual rights arguments.”

Criminalizing as a felony behavior common in certain social groups (e.g., using cannabis), applying these criminal statutes unevenly across social groups, and then taking the right to vote away from felons, looks like a very effective way to suppress the votes of out groups.

Disenfranchising prisoners has another antidemocratic effect: it expands the political power of communities where prisons are located. Prisoners still count for apportionment, so other voters in the region end up overrepresented – in effect, they vote for the incarcerated men and women in their community.

America’s criminal justice system needs serious reform, and electing District and Commonwealth’s Attorneys like Mike Schmidt will advance this part of the progressive agenda at the local level. Schmidt has demonstrated that policy focused more on the disadvantaged can get traction, and this will help enact a broader agenda of workers rights, progressive taxation, anti-discrimination laws, and environmental protection. I think this moves policy to the left as fast or faster than electing a Democratic Socialist President. Still, I look forward to Schmidt’s run for Congress…or Governor.

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