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Our New Interactive Tool to Follow Tuesday’s Criminal Justice Battlegrounds

Today in the Political Report newsletter   Oct. 29, 2020: The 2020 elections are five days away, and today we are bringing you new tools and resources to follow the local politics of criminal justice and mass incarceration next week. A new interactive guide to the 2020 elections that will shape criminal justice Also today: […]

Today in the Political Report newsletter


Oct. 29, 2020: The 2020 elections are five days away, and today we are bringing you new tools and resources to follow the local politics of criminal justice and mass incarceration next week.

Also today:

  • Education policy, and its role on the criminal legal system, is at stake in local elections

  • Oklahoma: State Question 805 could build on the state’s decarceral steps

  • California and North California: Spotlight on state Supreme Courts

  • Election quick hits, from coast to coast

  • Virginia adopts policing reforms, which fall short of what advocates pressed for

Catch up with last week’s newsletter. You can always visit our interactive tracker of legislative developments and our tracker of the politics of prosecutors,

A new interactive guide to the 2020 elections that will shape criminal justice

The general election is upon us. In fact, tens of millions of votes have already been cast. With anxieties understandably high about the presidential election, down-ballot races have perhaps gotten less love than usual. The Appeal: Political Report has focused all year on the local races that might challenge mass incarceration and advance criminal justice reform.

This week, we launched our annual interactive tool that will help you track the criminal justice battlegrounds in the 2020 elections. It will help you visualize and offer you access to our reporting and analyses of the most important DA and sheriff elections, referendums, and more.

You can also revisit my guides to the 30 most important prosecutor and sheriff elections, and to 12 state and local elections that may challenge ICE’s powers.

As the map makes clear, opportunities to upend the criminal legal system are uneven around the nation. Many states are not holding local elections at all; some are but drew very few candidates. But there are some hot spots that jump out where the landscape may be unrecognizable in a week.

Los Angeles County has the biggest stakes on the ballot next year. Voters there have to choose  between district attorney candidates with starkly different visions for the office. They will also get to weigh in on three statewide ballot initiatives and a local referendum pertaining to criminal justice, and races for city- and county-level officials that have been debating decarceration.

Maricopa County is close behind. The nation’s fourth most-populous county will choose its next sheriff and prosecutor, with clear contrast in each race, and weigh in on an initiative to legalize marijuana. Should Democrats flip the state legislature, it may also open different horizons for reform legislation that have gone nowhere in recent years.

There are a select number of counties that, like Maricopa, are hosting both prosecutor and sheriff elections that have high stakes for reform. Pay attention to Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio, to Charleston County, South Carolina, and to Oakland County, Michigan. And don’t sleep on Georgia and Texas: These states are on everyone’s minds this week as Joe Biden’s presidential campaign makes an explicit play for their electoral votes. But many local elections are worth watching in each.


Education policy, and its role in the criminal legal system, is on the line in local elections

The criminal legal system is closely entangled with schools and education policy. Funding flows more easily to the former, and the presence of police officers on campuses or disciplinary choices at many schools feed the law enforcement system.

So to deepen our focus on the local politics of mass incarceration, the Political Report launched a three-part series in the run-up to Nov. 3, about local elections where education issues are at stake.

Rachel Cohen reports that school board races are being rocked by debate on whether to terminate the presence of police officers in schools. She dives into Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Jennifer Berkshire reports that Arizona Republicans’ efforts to defund and privatize public schools have frustrated voters across the political spectrum and created an opening for a legislative flip. A ballot initiative that would hike taxes to fund education has garnered rare bipartisan support.

In the third article in this series, Courtney Napier reports on conflicts over racial segregation in the school board elections in Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina. You will find the article on our website tomorrow.

Oklahoma: State Question 805 could build on the state’s decarceral steps 

Voters’ most direct opportunities to upend the criminal legal system comes via referendums. Make sure to read our coverage of each of California’s three major ballot initiatives that pertain to criminal justice, Proposition 17 (on voting rights), Prop 20 (on sentencing), and Prop 25 (on pretrial detention). Oregon may be the first state in the nation to decriminalize drug possession via Measure 110. Four states are deciding whether to legalize marijuana.

One major initiative that will directly affect incarceration is Oklahoma’s State Question 805

It would prevent prosecutors who have charged someone with a nonviolent offense from seeking a harsher sentence based on the defendant’s prior nonviolent convictions, Oklahoma Watch explains. (The statewide association of prosecutors is predictably fighting the measure.) 

Some Oklahomans are serving staggeringly long sentences via such enhancements. If the measure passes they would be able to petition for shorter sentences, though that would not be automatic.

This measure builds on other recent successful initiatives that have helped reduce Oklahoma’s record prison population, and have shown that criminal justice reform can be popular in one of the country’s most conservative states. Still, Oklahoma remains among the most carceral states.

California and North Carolina: Spotlight on state Supreme Courts

As we experienced again over the last month, when the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling, or has a vacancy to be filled, its politics face close scrutiny: What judicial philosophies and interpretive approaches are justices following? What is the policy impact of the partisan balance of power? But these questions are comparatively neglected when it comes to state Supreme Courts. 

The Appeal: Political Report’s series on state supreme courts tries to fix this by examining court  appointments and elections, and their consequences, through the lens that their power deserves.

Our latest installment: articles spotlighting the California and North Carolina Supreme Courts.

Earlier this month, Kyle Barry wrote that California Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to add a former prosecutor to the state Supreme Court adds to the stark unbalance in professional experiences that has defined that court and many others around the nation.  

Last week, Barry dived into the three Supreme Court elections that are being held next week in North Carolina and explains why they will shape civil rights and criminal justice litigation going forward. In particular, pay attention to the race for chief justice between a Democratic former public defender and a Republican former prosecutor.

Election quick hits, from coast to coast

Arizona: Meg O’Connor reports in The Appeal on how debates about police accountability are shaping the prosecutor’s race in Maricopa County, and what the challenger is vowing to change.

Montana and South Dakota: Marijuana legalization is in promising, if uncertain, shape in Montana and South Dakota, according to two new polls of next week’s initiatives. Montana’s measure is leading by 16 percentage points, and South Dakota’s by 7 percentage points. South Dakota is also voting on whether to allow marijuana for medical purposes; that measure is leading by a far wider margin in this survey.

Tennessee: Voting rights are particularly catastrophic in Tennessee. A new Sentencing Project study shows that more than 20 percent of Black adults are disenfranchised because of the state’s harshly punitive felony disenfranchisement laws, the second-highest rate in the country. A judge ruled this week that the state does not have to expand voter eligibility.

Washington, D.C.: This summer, D.C. abolished felony disenfranchisement, enabling people with felony convictions to vote from prison. Kira Lerner reports in Slate on how it is unfolding.

Virginia adopts policing reforms, which fall short of what advocates pressed for

This week, Governor Ralph Northam signed into law a package of legislation that reforms policing rules, including a ban on no-knock warrants, a bill to strengthen the decertification process, and a bill authorizing jurisdictions to create civilian oversight boards with subpoena power. Virginia is now the second state to have a law banning no-knock warrants, after Oregon.

Many of the bolder bills that advocates were pushing for, though, including qualified immunity reform, derailed during the special session.

Separately, Northam signed Senate Bill 5018, which makes some people who are terminally ill eligible to be considered for parole. Virginia ended the parole process in the 1990s but has taken incremental steps to revive it this year.