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Two Mayoral Elections May Shape Policing Next Week

The Appeal: Political Report’s April 2 newsletter

April 2, 2021: Two mayoral elections with stakes for policing are coming up on Tuesday, and at the state level this past week brought milestones on marijuana and youth justice. Today’s menu:

  • New York legalized marijuana. Virginia and New Mexico may soon follow.

  • Nebraska: Omaha’s GOP mayor faces challengers who want a new path on policing

  • Missouri: St. Louis will turn over a new leaf on policing and jail with Tuesday’s mayoral race

  • Virginia: The state greatly expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions. But the next governor, who will be elected this year, could wipe away those gains.

  • Kentucky: A new law bans the mandatory transfer of children into adult court

  • Louisiana, Maryland, and New York: Prosecutors roll out new declination policies and drop cases

In case you missed it, catch up with last week’s Political Report newsletter, which dives into Virginia abolishing the death penalty and into the continued harms of working with ICE. You can also visit our interactive tracker of legislative developments and our interactive tracker of the latest reforms being implemented by prosecutors nationwide.

Nebraska: Omaha’s GOP mayor faces challengers who want a new path on policing

Like most of the country, Omaha was rocked by policing protests last year. Its mayoral election is now putting issues tied to criminal justice and policing on the table. Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican who has been endorsed by the local police union, faces a slate of challengers who are running on charting new paths.

Anoa Changa reports this week in The Appeal: Political Report on the stakes of this election, which is next Tuesday and will likely be resolved in a “top two” runoff in May.

“Local activists are rallying behind two Democratic challengers: criminal justice reform advocate Jasmine Harris and school board member Kimara Snipes,” Changa writes. “The election of either Harris or Snipes would give Omaha its first Black female mayor. Both candidates have spoken about the need for a more holistic approach to public safety that recognizes the root causes of crime that simply increasing policing doesn’t address.”

Activists like those with Omaha Abolition Research are pushing for candidates to embrace major investments in housing and transportation, in part to decrease the involvement of police and criminal justice in socioeconomic issues.

Missouri: St. Louis will turn over a new leaf on policing and jail with Tuesday’s mayoral race

St. Louis will vote for its next mayor on Tuesday. City Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderperson Cara Spencer will face off in a runoff after grabbing the first two spots in a primary round last month. 

Jones and Spencer were the two most progressive candidates in the primary field, and both ran on changing the city’s status quo on criminal justice and policing, though differences between them exist as well. In her preview of the election’s stakes for public safety and incarceration in late February, Meg O’Connor reported that Jones ran on decriminalizing sex work and that she has said she supports reducing the police budget; she faced attacks on both fronts during the primary campaign. Jones and Spencer also support closing the infamous Workhouse jail, and O’Connor wrote a follow-up article last week exploring how they would go about doing this.

“We need to close the Workhouse because it’s not only harming the people who are inside every day, it’s really harming the community of St. Louis as a whole,” Madison Orozco, an advocate with ArchCity Defenders, told O’Connor last week. “Millions of dollars are being held hostage. That money could be used to help St. Louis thrive.” ArchCity Defenders and other St. Louis organizations have fought to transform local practices and policies, and the mayoral race is the latest in a string of results that testify to their success.

New York legalized marijuana. Virginia and New Mexico may soon follow

Marijuana possession is now legal in New York. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law yesterday to legalize marijuana in the state, and the provisions legalizing possession apply immediately. The bill, which was adopted by the legislature on Tuesday, also establishes a system of regulated sales.

The issue has languished for years in Albany, but a confluence of factors—including neighboring New Jersey voting to legalize marijuana in November—considerably increased pressure on New York to follow suit. Legislative leaders and the governor announced a deal just this weekend.

Reform advocates are celebrating the details of the law as a win for social justice. For one, the package includes a provision to expunge past convictions over behavior that will now be legal. It also bars the police from invoking the smell of cannabis to justify vehicle searches, an excuse the police has used aggressively. “The time has come to reject the canard of marijuana emanating from nearly every vehicle subject to a traffic stop,” a judge wrote in a 2019 opinion.

New York has a long legacy of extremely harsh enforcement of marijuana laws. There were more than 500,000 arrests made between 1996 and 2010 over marijuana possession, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and 54 percent of those arrested were Black.

New York is the 16th state to pass a bill or a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. And efforts accelerated elsewhere over the last week: Two other states may soon take that step as well.

In Virginia, the legislature adopted a bill in February to legalize marijuana, but reform advocates criticized its provisions. First, the bill delays legalization until 2024, which would continue the harms of prohibition for years; second, it created an array of new marijuana-related crimes. But yesterday, the governor sent the bill back to the legislature, requesting an amendment that would speed up legalization by three years, to July 2021; he also requested other changes that would speed up expungements. If lawmakers vote to accept this amendment, the bill becomes law immediately without any need for further action by the governor.

And in New Mexico, although the legislative session ended in March without final approval of a long-debated marijuana bill, the governor has now called a special session. Marijuana is one of the few issues lawmakers are expected to address.

Virginia: The state just expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions. But the next governor could wipe away those gains.

When Virginia resident Jacqueline McBride accompanied a family member to the polls last fall, she was elated to see how enthusiastic people were to vote. “That was something special,” she says of the turnout she witnessed. “These young kids are the future.” But she was barred from voting because she was still on probation after her release from prison.

Even under those circumstances, she would have been able to cast a ballot had she lived in 19 other states—but Virginia had harsher rules. “I’ve always voted,” she recounts, “and when I couldn’t vote last time around, it made me feel like I wasn’t part of something anymore.”

McBride regained her right to vote last week, as part of an executive action by Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to restore the voting rights of tens of thousands of Virginians who are on probation and on parole. “I was so ecstatic,” she says, recalling how she grew up around people who were stripped of that right and never regained it.

Now the future of this vastly expanded, though still not universal, electorate hinges on the state’s upcoming elections for the governorship and legislature.

Read my full article on how Virginia’s 2021 elections may impact voting rights for people with felony convictions.

Kentucky: A new law bans the mandatory transfer of children into adult court 

Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has signed into law Senate Bill 32, which Kentucky’s Republican-run legislature adopted in March. Once it goes into effect, the law will end any mandatory transfer of minors into adult court. Transfers will happen through decisions made on each individual case by the court system.

Ever since a wave of “tough on crime” laws in 1996, Kentucky has automatically sent children age 14 and older to adult court when they are charged with offenses involving firearms. And the adult prosecution of children overall has disproportionately harmed Black youth. Fifty-seven percent of the children transferred to adult courts in Kentucky are Black, according to a recent study.

This bill would not bar the adult prosecution of children, though, and racial inequalities are likely to persist. At least the discretion to transfer a child into adult court will not solely rest on the prosecutor, as is the case in many states, nor on any one actor; a prosecutor will have to request to transfer a child, and a judge will have to approve it.

As I reviewed in 2019, when Oregon adopted a bill that took a similar step, the vast majority of states allow mandatory transfers into adult courts. Kentucky is just the 16th state to end this.

In related news: Lawmakers in North Carolina are considering bills to raise the minimum age at which children can be criminally prosecuted to 10, the News and Observer reports. Many stakeholders are pushing for a higher age. 

North Carolina currently allows children as young as 6 to be criminally prosecuted, the lowest minimum age in the nation. (That said, many states do not set any minimum age.) 

The state’s draconian system came to national exposure last month with the explosive story of a 6-year-old boy brought to court for allegedly picking a tulip in someone’s backyard. Nearly half of the children under age of 11 who face criminal complaints in North Carolina are Black.

Louisiana, Maryland, New York: Prosecutors launch declination policies and drop cases

The notion that district attorneys would adopt wholesale policies of declining to prosecute entire categories of charges burst onto the scene in 2018 with the prosecutorial election in Boston. Rachael Rollins’s decision to run on a list of 15 offenses she would not prosecute was heralded by reform advocates for pushing the boundary of what was being debated in DA races.

A new academic study, released this week, measured some of the benefits of avoiding prosecution: In comparing low-level cases over which people were prosecuted to equivalent cases over which others were not prosecuted, the study found that individuals in the latter group were far less likely to come in contact with the criminal legal system in the future. 

“Prosecuting these defendants actually decreases public safety,” said Rutgers University professor Amanda Agan, one of the researchers who conducted the study.

Over the last week, three more prosecutors made news for policies in line with this approach.

  1. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office would not prosecute a list of low-level offenses, including drug and drug paraphernalia possession, attempted distribution, prostitution, trespassing, open container violations, and urinating and defecating in public. “Today, America’s war on drug users is over in the city of Baltimore,” Mosby said. “We leave behind the era of tough-on-crime prosecution and zero tolerance policing and no longer default to the status quo to criminalize mostly people of color for addiction.”
  2. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez announced in January that he was no longer prosecuting sex workers, though he said he would continue prosecuting people who solicit sex work. Last week, Gonzalez announced his office was dismissing 857 outstanding warrants that the Brooklyn DA’s office has issued dating back to the 1970s. 
  3. New Orleans DA Jason Williams, who came into office this year after running on decreasing the footprint of the criminal legal system, announced this week that he was dropping more than 400 cases, many of which were open for years. The majority of those cases were drug-related. 

Other jurisdictions that have made news this year for declination-related actions include Athens, Georgia, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.