Advocates’ Case for Equity in Marijuana Legalization, a Conversation about Policing in Jacksonville, and More


In This Edition of the Political Report

January 25, 2019:

  • Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey: Advocates explain how marijuana legalization should tackle social and racial justice

  • Florida: A conversation about policing in Jacksonville with organizer Marcia Garcia

  • Kentucky: Poll finds strong support for restoring voting rights post-sentence

  • New Mexico: Bill to end felony disenfranchisement moves forward

  • Legislative round-up: Activists rally for Arizona and Virginia sentencing reform, Connecticut commission releases recommendations

You can visit the Appeal: Political Report website to read our latest analyses of the local politics of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.

Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey: Advocates explain how marijuana legalization should tackle equity

Efforts to legalize marijuana gained momentum in 2018, when new Democratic governors and legislators were swept into office on such a platform and Michiganders approved legalization in a referendum.

But state advocates are demanding that politicians who are preparing legalization legislation be more attentive than in the past to confronting the harm that prohibition has caused. “It’s very clear looking at the statistics that the burden of marijuana criminalization and mass incarceration fell upon communities of color and that all the pieces that flow from that, things like losing jobs, losing housing, losing lifetime earnings, all of those collateral consequences also fell upon those communities,” said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey office.

“We can’t move forward into the new world where marijuana will be legal and not take extra steps to repair that harm,” she added.

The burgeoning marijuana industry’s benefits are not distributed evenly. Marijuana-related arrests still target African Americans at a higher rate, and many states are timid in dealing with people with past convictions; Michigan’s referendum legalizing marijuana in November did not include a measure providing for expungement, for instance. In fact, people with past marijuana convictions can be barred from employment in marijuana businesses. Inequalities persist on the side of ownership as well: Marijuana sales are mostly benefiting white investors, according to a number of studies, and the hefty price of an initial investment is a barrier to lower-income Americans, who are disproportionately minorities. “You need to have at least a quarter of a million dollars lying around just to get started [with a marijuana dispensary],” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Solomon Jones has written. “Since black families hold about $5.04 in wealth for every $100 held by white families, that’s not realistic for most of us.”

These issues are central to the legalization debates happening now in Connecticut, Illinois,  New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York. (While Vermont is the only state so far to have legalized marijuana legislatively, these states may do so in their current legislative session.)

I asked advocates in Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey what social and racial justice measures they think legalization should contain:

  • Kebra Smith-Bolden, president of the Connecticut United for Reform and Equity (CURE) and CEO of Canna-Health: “Number one is that all prisoners who currently have pending cannabis charges should have those dismissed and shouldn’t have to be on probation and parole, that there is no-cost expungement, and that there are tax incentives for businesses that hire ex-offenders. Equity in ownership: There should be opportunities for everyone, so we need to have requirements for diversity within the licensing process, and that has to be supported by the statistics of the communities that were overpoliced. … There can be less expensive modes of entry for all people to have the opportunity to enter this industry. We do believe that the licensing should be controlled on the municipal level. The city would be in control of the businesses that would come in the city and how the revenue would be poured back into the city. We believe that the reinvestment in the communities can come in a bunch of different forms, through education, rebuilding community centers, giving people the education on how to become businesses owners and how to engage in this new industry. … There needs to be finances available, through cannabis funds, to do marketing, to really be able to spread the word and to educate the community around the programs that are being created with the cannabis funds.” (See also: CURE has released a list of policy recommendations.)
  • Sharone Mitchell Jr., deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project: “I look at three components. I look at criminal record relief. We know that there are one million citizens in Illinois with criminal records, many of them for drug related issues or convictions, so having this bill include automatic expungement is key. Access to attorneys is difficult, it takes time to go to court, so when you make things expungeable you don’t get the group of people you’re targeting. [Asked what automaticity would involve, Mitchell responded: “It happens without me having to hire a lawyer and go to court, and pay money, and pay a fee. It means that the state is going to be declaring that those records are expungeable and does the work of expunging those records.”] The second piece is making sure that proceeds are shifted to communities that have been the setting for the war on drugs. … The third is inclusion in the industry. We know from our experience with medical marijuana that the rich got richer, and the folks that had a lot of access to capital were able to take advantage of that: We want to make sure that a more diverse set of people are benefiting from the industry, whether they be owners, whether they be people who are working in auxiliary industries like packaging or design.”
  • Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey: “There are several pieces. One would be making sure that the portion of the tax revenue that is generated goes back to the communities that are most impacted by marijuana prohibition and mass incarceration. That could be through a grants program, or some other form of funding for programs that these communities find important, and we think that these communities should say what that would be. We would also like to see a very expedited path of expungement of records since in New Jersey African Americans are three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people. The burden disproportionately fell on that community, and we want to make sure that everyone who was harmed by that can get those records expunged quickly and for free. We would like to make sure that there is a clear path in the most impacted communities to get in the industry. One of the things that would do this is not barring people who have prior convictions in the community from entering the industry. … We would like to see things like: finding ways that a percentage of the licenses can go to members of communities of color, making sure that there are things like micro licenses so people who don’t have a large amount of capital have a path to get in the industry.”

Advocates in these states warn that it is not easy to get questions of equity on the table. “It’s definitely been a struggle,” Scotti said about the debate in New Jersey, though she added that “the narrative has shifted over time and the bill itself has changed.”

The legislative debate in New Jersey is further along than that of these other states since the session began in 2018. Demands like Scotti’s have been amplified by a group of mayors, including Ras Baraka of Newark and Steven Fulop of Jersey City, and by lawmakers like state Representative Jamel Holley, who told me that he “wouldn’t support legalization of marijuana if it didn’t include a strong social justice component.”

By contrast, I talked to Smith-Bolden on the same day that a bill legalizing marijuana was introduced in Connecticut’s House. Smith-Bolden criticized that bill’s content. “It’s saying that they will go forward with cannabis legalization with the already existing entities, which are all white-owned and you have to be a millionaire to be involved,” she said. “We plan on pulling out all the guns and we are connecting with other like-minded organizations and politicians. …  [Legalization] must include social justice reform and equity provisions for people of color and communities affected on the war on drugs. It must.”

You can find a standalone version of this story here.

Florida: A conversation about policing in Jacksonville with organizer Marcia Garcia

Jacksonville heads to the polls on March 19 to elect its sheriff. Republican Sheriff Mike Williams is running for re-election against Tony Cummings, a Democrat. The Political Report will return to this election in the weeks ahead, highlighting the candidates as well as local organizers’ perspectives on the importance of the sheriff’s office.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) covers Duval County, and it doubles as the police department for the city of Jacksonville. This means that Jacksonville residents get to elect the head of their police department, an unusual arrangement among larger cities. This week, I spoke with Maria Garcia, a lead organizer with the grassroots organization Jacksonville Community Action Committee, who explained why her organization is focused on JSO’s policing practices. In the course of our conversation, she referenced investigations published in recent years: “Walking While Dead,” a ProPublica and Florida Times-Union co-publication that documented the disproportionate share of jaywalking tickets and other pedestrian citations issued by the JSO to Black residents, and “Deadnamed,” a ProPublica article on JSO’s handling of the murders of transgender women. You can read the conversation here. Below is an excerpt

In what way is police accountability an important issue in Jacksonville specifically?

Officers have killed unarmed people multiple times. They have landed themselves in the news on a ProPublica investigation, for profiling African American residents for jaywalking, which leads to fines and which leads to arrests. Officers have been accused of police brutality incidents multiple times, and the way that they handled their investigations is through internal investigations, which almost always leads to little to no action being taken against police officers. One notable case is the killing of a mentally ill man, Harold Kraai. He was shot within 10 seconds of the officers arriving. The police was called because the man was having a suicidal episode. The officer who arrived that day had multiple complaints against him and he put several bullets into Mr. Kraai. That is the sort of police culture that we have—it doesn’t seem to matter how many complaints officers have, they are allowed to continue their careers. [Editor’s note: The JSO has said that Kraai approached officer Richard Futch with a knife and refused to drop it, after which Futch shot Kraai eight times.] That’s why we need police accountability. We also have had four or five murders of Black transgender women happen in or around Jacksonville. When talking to the media about these transgender women, police officers referred to them by their dead names, which hampers the investigations because of a lot of these women were not known by their dead names.

The way that the civilian police accountability would help with this is that we would have the right to give citizens the right to hire or fire police officers. It would give them the right to oversee the training that police officers receive, and basically give the people of Jacksonville an outside force investigating the police.

You can read the rest of our interview with Maria Garcia here.

Kentucky: Poll finds strong support for restoring voting rights post-sentence

A Mason-Dixon poll found strong support among Kentuckians for restoring the voting rights of individuals who complete a felony sentence. Sixty-six percent approved of the proposal, while 32 percent disapproved; this margin is reminiscent of the 30-point victory for Amendment 4, the referendum that restored voting rights post-sentence in Florida. The poll was commissioned and released by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, which supports reforming the state’s system.

Kentucky is one of three states whose laws permanently disenfranchise anyone with a felony conviction. I reported in December on the reform paths that local advocates are pursuing. The legislature would need to initiate the process of amending the state Constitution, and such efforts have repeatedly stalled in years past. A new legislative push is expected this year.

An interesting feature of the Mason-Dixon poll is that its question mentioned no restrictions on who would regain the right to vote post-sentence. That contrasts that with the official ballot summary of Florida’s Amendment 4: “The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.” The Kentucky survey found wide support for rights restoration even without such a disclaimer. This matters because in 2014, the last year in which both legislative chambers passed a constitutional amendment changing disenfranchisement rules, the reform stalled because Senate Republicans added restrictions on whose rights would be restored; individuals with multiple convictions were to remain barred from voting, for instance.

Governor Matt Bevin’s office recently touted in the Wall Street Journal the fact that he had restored the rights of more than 1,000 people. But more than 300,000 Kentuckians were disenfranchised at the start of Bevin’s tenure in 2016, according to the Sentencing Project; nearly 250,000 of them had completed their sentence. 

New Mexico: Bill to end felony disenfranchisement moves forward

The effort to fully abolish felony disenfranchisement took a first legislative step on Jan. 25 when the State Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee in the state House voted to move House Bill 57 forward. This legislation, previewed by the Political Report last month, would end the practice of disenfranchising people who are convicted of a felony conviction, including people who are presently incarcerated. The bill now moves to the House Judiciary Committee

However, the committee voted to pass the bill without a recommendation based on a request by Democratic Representative Daymon Ely, who spoke before the vote to say that he did not approve of the bill’s scope and wanted the opportunity to narrow it later. Ely said that he did not support enfranchising people who are incarcerated, but would approve restoring the rights of individuals upon their release. New Mexico currently disenfranchises individuals who are on probation and on parole. “We can take this bill, and use it in a way that makes a fundamental difference to people who have served their time,” Ely said.

Representative Gail Chasey, the Democratic sponsor of HB 57, spoke in favor of moving the bill forward without a recommendation so that the debate can continue on another forum. “This is a big jump from A to Z,” she said. “We’ve been doing this since slavery was abolished… We are going way way back there. That’s the change, and I appreciate that some people can’t get there that quickly. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss it further in Judiciary.”Five Democrats (Chasey, Ely, Georgene Louis, Wonda Johnson, and Derrick Lente) voted in favor of moving the bill forward; Louis, Johnson, and Lente did not speak before the vote. Three Republicans (Greg Nibert, William Rehm, and Martin Zamora) voted against it. Nilbert said that he wanted a narrower bill that only dealt with the rights of people who are already eligible to vote but encounter practical obstacles to doing so. “My proposal would be to fix the system,” he said.

“We want everyone to participate in the voting process who is eligible to do so… I believe there are a lot of problems if we allow voting in the prisons.”Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners, told me after the committee’s initial hearing on Wednesday that these hearings were the culmination of years of advocacy. “This has been more than a year and a half of planting seed,” she said. “I cannot believe that we are here, this is so incredible.”

You can find a standalone version of this story here.

Legislative round-up: Activists rally for Arizona and Virginia sentencing reform, Connecticut commission releases recommendations

Arizona and Virginia: Activists held a rally at the Arizona state capitol on Jan. 22 in support of House Bill 2270, a bill sponsored by Republican state Representative Walt Blackman that would change the state requirement that people serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release by lowering that percentage for most incarcerated people. “You’re surrounded by the best examples of the truth of the matter, which is that people can and do change for the better and they deserve an opportunity to come home to us,” Caroline Isaacs, program director at American Friends Service Committee’s Arizona office, told the Arizona Daily Star.

The Virginia Prison Justice Network also organized a rally in front of Virginia’s state capitol building on Jan. 14 in support of reinstating the availability of parole. Various bills have been introduced in the current legislative session to advance this goal, as the Capital News Service details.

Connecticut: The Connecticut Sentencing Commission, a state agency that makes  policy recommendations, has released its proposals for the next legislative session. The commission’s recommendations are forwarded to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “There has to be a public hearing on anything that the sentencing commission proposes,” Alex Tsarkov, the commission’s executive director, told me. “We take a very active role in the legislative process.”

The commission grouped its proposals into three documents. The first reforms the state’s sexual offender registry, in part by creating a new board that is meant to assess risk, and in part by creating a process with which people on the registry can petition to be removed from it. Connecticut currently lacks such a removal process. The second reforms sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses by enabling deviations from mandatory minimums in some circumstances, and by toughening penalties in others. The third is more of a medley. It includes: reducing the sentence associated with some misdemeanor convictions from 365 days to 364 because a full one-year sentence can be grounds for ICE deportation proceedings (Section 1), improving the parental and visitation rights of incarcerated parents (Sections 3-6), restoring the voting rights of people who are on parole (Section 7), and automatically erasing some of the records of people convicted while minors (Section 8). The proposal to shorten misdemeanor sentences for immigration reasons already received a favorable vote by the Judiciary Committee in 2018 (HB 5544), but it was then not called for a vote in the state House.

You can visit the Political Report’s legislative round-up page for more on legislative debates in states.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!