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2021 Brings Movement Against the Death Penalty and for Voting Rights in States

The Appeal: Political Report’s January 28 newsletter.

The word “decarceration” made it into the Merriam-Webster dictionary this week, a testament to the changing debates around the criminal legal system that have continued to upend local policies this week. On the menu in today’s newsletter: 

  • Oregon: Will this state accelerate the movement against felony disenfranchisement?
  • Virginia: The state legislature is rapidly advancing reforms against mandatory minimums, the death penalty, disenfranchisement, and more
  • Legislative roundup: Other developments from Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania
  • The politics of prosecutors: New Austin DA makes changes, Florida and Texas prosecutors who once ran on reform pursue aggressive prosecutions, and Staten Island prosecutor embraces facial recognition
  • Washington: After cutting its police budget, Seattle turns to participatory budgeting

In case you missed it, catch up with last week’s Political Report newsletter, which reviewed a wave of major reforms in Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., that have made 2021 start with a bang.

You can also visit our interactive tracker of legislative developments, our tracker of the politics of prosecutors, and our portal on the 2020 elections.

Will Oregon accelerate the movement against felony disenfranchisement?

Oregon lawmakers have introduced a bill to enable people to vote from prison, Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal: Political Report this week.

If the legislation were to pass, Oregon would join Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., as the only jurisdictions that have no felony disenfranchisement.. But Oregon would be the first state to abolish the practice, since Maine and Vermont have never had it in the first place and D.C. is not a state, and advocates told Lerner they hope this milestone would jumpstart changes elsewhere. 

“Prison is about the loss of liberty, not the loss of citizenship,” Anthony Richardson, who is incarcerated in the state, told Lerner. He added that Oregon first disenfranchised people in prison “over 160 years ago, during a time of forced labor, exclusion laws, lashings, lynching, and policies designed solely to benefit white men and oppress people of color,“ and “continues to forbid Oregonians in prison from being valued as human beings in this state.” Indeed, Oregon has among the nation’s highest racial disparities in incarceration, a reality that the bill’s proponents are stressing to make the case that suffrage cannot stop at the prison doors.

The introduction of Oregon’s bill builds on national efforts to end felony disenfranchisement that the Political Report has closely followed. In 2019, I interviewed Maine’s secretary of state about how voting from prison works there, and about his perspective that suffrage can provide a “sliver of light.”

After the Political Report broke news of the Oregon bill on Monday, some public officials and advocates in other states responded by calling on their leadership to follow suit. Eli Savit, the newly elected prosecutor of Washtenaw County, Michigan, tweeted; “Hey Michigan! We already let returning citizens vote when they come home. How about let’s end prison disenfranchisement altogether?” The ACLU of Virginia tweeted, “@GovernorVA, we can do this in Virginia.”

Virginia: The state legislature is rapidly advancing reforms against mandatory minimums, the death penalty, disenfranchisement, and more

Virginia has long been a bastion of punitive politics. The state’s incarceration rate is higher than the sky-high national average, it all but eliminated parole in the 1990s, and it has among the nation’s harshest felony disenfranchisement statutes. But Democrats gained control of the legislature in the 2019 elections, upending the political landscape. Last year, Virginia eliminated life without parole for minors, decriminalized marijuana possession, and ended prison gerrymandering, among myriad other changes.

Many important reforms are rapidly moving in the 2021 session, but questions remain as to the scope of lawmakers’ ambitions.

Death penalty abolition: Virginia may be the likeliest state to abolish the death penalty this year, I wrote in my newsletter last week after the Senate Judiciary Committee—almost identical in its membership to the committee that sunk legislation abolishing the death penalty last year—voted to advance a new abolition bill. This week, the Senate Finance Committee voted to advance the legislation as well, sending it to the chamber’s floor. Once again, all Democratic senators voted in favor of the bill, as well as one Republican. 

What are the odds of passage in the full Senate? I put together a whip count of the senators’ public positions, combining their votes in committee with their responses to my direct email inquiries, and identified 17 supporters out of 39 lawmakers. The bill also has to pass the House.

Mandatory minimums: The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill this week that “would end mandatory minimum jail and prison terms for more than 200 crimes,” the Associated Press reports. Advocates who testified for the bill stressed that mandatory minimums empower prosecutors to control sentencing with how they decide to charge a case and grant them additional leverage to pressure defendants into guilty pleas. The progressive association of state prosecutors that formed in 2020 to promote criminal justice reform had made repealing mandatory minimums one of its first demands. 

Voting rights: In a dramatic shift this week, Democratic lawmakers significantly expanded the scope of their legislation against felony disenfranchisement, with the governor’s support. I wrote two weeks ago that Governor Ralph Northam had unveiled a push to narrow felony disenfranchisement that was remarkably disappointing compared to legislation that many states have passed in recent years; it would have restored people’s voting rights after they finish their entire sentences, including periods of supervision. But lawmakers amended the bill on Monday to enable anyone who is not presently incarcerated to vote. 

This change would enfranchise tens of thousands of additional Virginians; it would also make the situation far less confusing to many others who on paper would have been enfranchised under the prior proposal but who in practice would have to navigate byzantine rules to figure out whether they are eligible. “To me, completion of sentence of imprisonment is a very clear, bright-line standard,” said Delegate Mark Levine, a Democrat. Still, the bill would leave behind incarcerated Virginians; state advocates have pushed for lawmakers to entirely eliminate disenfranchisement. 

And more: Other bills that touch on the criminal legal system advanced past at least one committee over the last week. In particular, House Bill 2290 would end the enhanced penalties imposed on people who are repeatedly convicted of misdemeanor theft. HB 1936 would end the state’s draconian practice of punishing all felony robbery by at least five years in prison (theft of at least $1,000 is a felony in Virginia), though some robbery convictions would retain exceedingly long terms. Other bills would restrict incarceration over violations of probation, and provide defendants access to legal counsel at bail hearings—a protection defendants often lack at a key moment.

Legislative roundup: Other developments from Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania

Alabama: People with felony convictions must carry special IDs

Connor Sheets of reported last year that Alabama is the only state where people with multiple felony convictions must carry a special ID card, and face incarceration if they do not. This week, Sheets wrote a Twitter thread that explains that, despite promises by sheriffs to change their practices in response to his article, Alabamans continue to be arrested and face jail charges because they were not carrying “felon IDs.”

Illinois: Waiting for the governor

The omnibus legislation that I reviewed last week still sits on Governor J.B. Pritzker’s desk. It would affect cash bail, felony murder, and driver’s license suspensions, among other matters.

Missouri: A Republican lawmaker would protest drivers who injure protesters

Tennessee grabbed headlines in 2020 with a new law that criminalized activities tied with protests. A disturbing trend has emerged in 2021 of other state legislatures considering bills meant to crack down on protesters, and using the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol as cover to do so, Meg O’Connor reported in The Appeal last week. In Missouri, Senator Rick Brattin, a Republican, now is proposing legislation that “would release a motorist from liability if they injure someone who blocks traffic during an unlawful protest.” State Democrats want the legislature to adopt stricter law enforcement rules, but a special session in the GOP-run legislature last fall derailed most such proposals.

New York and Pennsylvania: Will marijuana legalization finally come?

Will these two Northeastern states legalize marijuana this year? Joshua Vaughn reports in The Appeal that they face mounting pressure now that neighboring New Jersey took that step in November through a ballot initiative; they stand to lose out on a lot of potential revenue. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that legalization, which he used to oppose, is a priority for him this year. State advocates hope that Democrats’ increased majority in the New York legislature will also spur further reforms that they have long pushed for, such as legislation to decriminalize possession of a syringe.

The politics of prosecutors: from Austin, Houston, Jacksonville, and New York City

Duval County, Florida: Prosecutor will seek the death penalty if the defendant doesn’t drop innocence claims

Melissa Nelson, the chief prosecutor of Duval County (Jacksonville), first ran on promoting reforms and using the death penalty judiciously. But The Appeal reports this week that she is now seeking the death penalty against a man who is intellectually disabled, according to his attorneys. “In letters to community members, Nelson seems to suggest that she would consider dropping the death penalty if not for Glover’s innocence claim and his plans to appeal his conviction,” Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg writes. 

In 2020, at least seven candidates won prosecutorial races after running on a much stronger commitment. Rather than say they would use their discretion more wisely (a promise that can be made to fit any circumstance, as we’ve also seen in Houston in circumstances similar to Jacksonville), they vowed to simply never seek the death penalty. A number of them, including in Los Angeles and Athens, Georgia, have reaffirmed this in formal memos since taking office. 

New York City, New York: Staten Island’s DA embraces facial recognition

The office of Staten Island DA Michael McMahon purchased facial recognition software from Clearview AI in 2019, George Joseph reports in Gothamist, despite the grave concerns that facial recognition raises about surveillance and privacy. Joseph adds that Staten Island appears to be the only one of New York City’s five boroughs to have done so.

Travis County (Austin), Texas: Early changes greet Austin’s new prosecutor

A grand jury in Travis County has indicted two police officers over the 2019 assault of Paul Mannie, a Black man. Austin’s police department had cleared the officers of wrongdoing through an internal investigation, but José Garza, a progressive who won the DA race last year, ran on a promise of presenting “all use-of-force cases to grand juries that involve deaths or serious injuries,” the Austin American-Statesman reports. It may be hard for prosecutors to secure convictions if the police department is not cooperating. (See also: Grits for Breakfast, a blog that covers the criminal legal system in Texas, reviews Garza‘s first weeks on policing.)

Separately, this week Garza‘s office supported the release of Rosa Jimenez, a woman who has been fighting to establish her innocence; Margaret Moore, the DA ousted by Garza last year, had resisted Jimenez’s claims but eventually shifted her position during the campaign.

Harris County (Houston), Texas: DA prosecutes a doctor over COVID-19 vaccines 

A Texas doctor administered nine doses of the COVID-19 vaccines that he said would otherwise go to waste to people who were not on the priority list. Houston’s DA, Kim Ogg, charged him with theft in response. This week, local judge Franklin Bynum dismissed the charge and starkly criticized Ogg for filing it. “the State attempts, for the first time, to criminalize a doctor’s documented administration of vaccine doses during a public health emergency,” wrote Bynum, who won this judgeship in 2018 as a democratic socialist candidate and gained national attention. But Ogg said she still intends to present the case to a grand jury. (See also: In 2019, a federal judge reproached Ogg for engaging in Willie Horton-style tactics to derail the county’s proposed bail reform.)

Washington State: After cutting its police budget, Seattle turned to participatory budgeting

In tandem with the nationwide movement to defund police, “people’s budgets” are on the rise as advocates call for public funds to go toward healthcare, housing, and public services instead. In November, Seattle went further than other cities that have reduced police funding. The City Council not only cut the police budget by 18 percent, but it also allocated millions that waswereslated to go to the police to a participatory budgeting process that will give residents a say in how the money should be used.

Manjeet Kaur writes in the Political Report this week on Seattle’s Black Lives Matter movement, and how it channeled momentum from the streets into budget debates and ultimately won a groundbreaking reform that will directly involve people in governing in a way that we may have seen elsewhere in the world but has rarely been practiced within the United States.