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How decriminalizing sex work became a campaign issue in 2018

State Senate candidate Julia Salazar explains how sex workers’ rights is a key part of reforming criminal justice in New York.

Julia Salazar speaks to canvassers in August.
Melissa Gira Grant/Anagraph

How decriminalizing sex work became a campaign issue in 2018

State Senate candidate Julia Salazar explains how sex workers’ rights is a key part of reforming criminal justice in New York.


“What is sex work?”

That was the question sex worker rights activists were expecting to hear often as they canvassed Brooklyn voters one drizzly August Sunday. At a gathering of about two dozen canvassers in a Williamsburg park, after the pizza and before knocking on doors, the activists circled under some trees to talk through how to answer that question. It was the first time this group had canvassed voters on sex workers’ rights, to talk with voters about the enforcement of prostitution laws, like anti-loitering policing that targets women of color and raids on massage businesses predominantly staffed by immigrants. It was the first time these activists had a candidate they could canvass on these issues for.

Julia Salazar, who is running for a New York state Senate seat representing north Brooklyn, arrived a few minutes later to send them off. She said sex workers—“my constituents”—are disproportionately criminalized in her district. Bushwick, for example, was among the top five New York City neighborhoods where police made “loitering for prostitution” arrests as of 2015. She referenced the Brooklyn courts, where 94 percent of those facing loitering for prostitution charges were Black. “That should disturb all of us,” she said.

Salazar argued that sex work policing was a central part of a bigger problem with Brooklyn’s approach to criminal justice. “Criminalizing sex work is a form of broken windows policing,” she said. “We shouldn’t tolerate it when it is used against sex workers.” If police gave out tickets for prostitution-related offenses instead of arresting people, she said, “this would actually go a long way in New York state toward decriminalization—toward full decriminalization.”

But how would she turn campaign promises into actual decriminalization? As Salazar explained in an interview with The Appeal, it will require identifying the issues where there’s a clear legislative path. She also plans to use her role and relationship to the movement to do “comprehensive political education” on sex work—like through Sunday’s canvass. Speaking “boldly and unapologetically” about sex workers’ rights helps destigmatize the issue, Salazar told The Appeal. “I think that is the most powerful work, and also it is the only way that ultimately we achieve legislative solutions as well.” Her campaign has provided a platform for sex workers to do some of that educational work, while offering a template for how the decriminalization fight could play out in other cities and states.

Salazar’s candidacy has been billed as part of a wave of young candidates on the left, many who have unseated veteran incumbent Democrats in their primaries. Her campaign has also generated intense scrutiny, with multiple news articles on her personal religious background, her political evolution, and most recently, allegations that in 2010 she stole from Mets player Keith Hernandez’s wife at the time. Police did not move forward with those charges, and Salazar received a settlement in a defamation lawsuit.

In its story on the allegations, the Daily Mail called Salazar a “socialist pin-up”. Salazar told The Appeal, “It’s sexist and repulsive for any reporter to call a woman running for office a ‘pin-up.’ They should also be ashamed for seeking to smear me when they can see that I was clearly viciously targeted by someone—and that I was given a settlement to resolve it.”

Salazar canvassing materials
Melissa Gira Grant

Her support for sex workers’ rights is unusual for a person running for office, though if 2018’s elections are any indication, that is starting to change rapidly. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated longtime incumbent Representative Joseph Crowley of New York in her primary fight and is expected to head to Washington in January, says she opposes SESTA/FOSTA, new federal legislation that has pushed sex workers offline and made sex work more dangerous. When Suraj Patel was running for Congress against New York Representative Carolyn Maloney, a SESTA/FOSTA co-sponsor, he held a town hall meeting on sex work run by sex worker rights activists. Patel, who lost the primary, stopped short of supporting the full decriminalization of sex work. Still, the critical races to watch—when it comes to removing anti-prostitution laws from the books—will be state and local level races like Salazar’s.

Federal legislation like SESTA/FOSTA is harmful, but state and municipal laws against prostitution have threatened sex workers for far longer. These are the laws Salazar focuses on in her platform, and if elected, these are laws she could help change. A bill to repeal New York’s “loitering for prostitution” law has already been introduced. Likewise, lawmakers in Albany could repeal the prostitution exemption in the state’s rape shield law, another Salazar priority; this would bar sex workers’ past charges and convictions from being considered evidence in a rape case. The state could also prohibit allowing the possession of condoms as evidence in prostitution cases through another bill that has already been introduced (though in the past, the NYPD has opposed it). Some of the changes Salazar and sex workers seek, though, don’t require action in Albany. Prosecutors could simply opt not to pursue prostitution-related charges. Police could be instructed to stop making such arrests.

Sex workers have already been pushing these changes in New York, challenging the loitering law and fighting to end condoms-as-evidence, and Salazar is quick to underscore that in taking up these issues, she is following people who have been “fighting for a long time.” The current wave of criminal justice reform around sex work grew from a nationwide movement of sex worker rights activists older than most of the activists on the Salazar canvass. One of those early activists, Margo St. James, emerged as a pro-decriminalization force in the 1970s. After a prostitution arrest, she went to law school and appealed her conviction. St. James later ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1996. The city’s district attorney endorsed her, though she lost.

What differentiates this moment from earlier waves of sex worker rights organizing is that it’s finding support from multiple candidates in simultaneous races before they make it into office. Salazar told The Appeal that she was approached by sex worker rights activists like Lola Balcon, an organizer who helped lead Survivors Against SESTA, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who Salazar knew from DSA’s Socialist Feminist Working Group. “I would say it didn’t require a lot of consideration,” she said, when it came to backing sex workers’ rights.

Salazar said her policy positions also draw from her four years as a domestic worker, caring for two kids on the Upper West Side and cleaning apartments to supplement that income, and as an activist on a campaign to pass a New York state Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. “Getting involved with the Caring Majority campaign, it became apparent to me that domestic workers really are uniquely mistreated. They are excluded from collective bargaining rights—at least as an industry—are excluded from the conversation most of the time about labor rights and about workers’ rights, and that exclusion is really rooted in both misogyny and a history of slavery,” she told The Appeal. Sex workers, she said, “face similar challenges, of being not, still, conventionally thought of as workers, and having their labor deeply undervalued, and even scorned.” Sex workers, like domestic workers, she said, need to be recognized by and protected under the law.

Eve, an escort and member of the DSA, canvassing for Salazar.
Melissa Gira Grant

Sex workers’ key difference from domestic workers, however, is that so many sex workers are criminalized. Sex workers’ labor rights issues are also criminal justice issues.

Salazar believes that the way forward is to tackle both kinds of issues together, and to do so, that will require getting the labor movement to see that criminal justice reform is “directly related to the mission of the labor movement as a whole and of labor unions.” Organized workers, community leaders, and elected officials, she said, “have a responsibility to demand that our labor movement institutions are focusing more on criminal system justice and reform as a whole and making the connection to workers rights.”

Sex workers are already working on making these connections, including while on the doorsteps of strangers. Eve, an escort and member of the DSA, told The Appeal that she had also knocked on doors for Ocasio-Cortez. If sex workers’ rights are having a coming-out moment in electoral politics, Salazar said that’s due to these workers and their organizing. This moment, she said, “it really is the result of long suffering relentless determination and building this movement. It’s really cool to finally see the fruits of that.”

And New York voters may finally be ready to listen. That Sunday with Salazar’s sex worker rights supporters, Eve bounded up six and seven flights of stairs with ease, in tenement walk-ups and doorman buildings. Her pitch was consistent, running quickly through Salazar’s support for affordable housing, abolishing ICE, and decriminalizing sex work. One voter, in a new building where few answered Eve’s knocks, did have some questions about what it would mean to abolish ICE. Another asked if she was his Uber driver. But none of the voters on the other side of those doors turned Eve away or even questioned her when she said she was a sex worker and that’s why she supported Salazar.

We never seem to see the headline: ‘Native-born American arrested’

We never seem to see the headline: ‘Native-born American arrested’


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: We never seem to see the headline: ‘Native-born American arrested’

  • Justice in America Episode 7: The new progressive prosecutors?

  • New York woman imprisoned for defending herself from abuser seeks clemency

  • ‘There’s an all-out manhunt’: A strike organizer speaks from prison

  • ACLU releases blueprints for reducing mass incarceration

  • New season of ‘Serial’ takes a systemic look, as does Kim Kardashian

  • Massachusetts DA candidates propose different ways to combat cash bail system

In the Spotlight

We never seem to see the headline: ‘Native-born American arrested’

Last week, almost half of Oregon’s 36 sheriffs “signed on to a letter supporting an effort to repeal the state’s 31-year-old sanctuary law, which bars local and state resources from being used to enforce federal immigration laws,” as reported by Willamette Week. “The letter encourages Oregonians to vote for Measure 105, which would repeal the law, in November.” It also invokes the name of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old Iowa woman who was allegedly killed by an undocumented man, “despite her family’s objection to using her death as a political talking point in debates on immigration policy.”  The letter states: “Mollie Tibbetts’ recent murder has refocused attention on the violence and heartbreak illegal-immigrant criminals can visit on Americans and their families.” Public support or lack thereof for undocumented immigrants can have policy ramifications. In 2014, voters in Oregon overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. [Katie Shepherd / Willamette Week]

Tibbetts, who was missing for weeks before her body was found, seemed destined for media attention: Missing person cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls have been shown to receive extensive and disproportionate media coverage. But, as noted by Vox, the story began to draw “particular attention … due to another development: The suspect in the killing is an undocumented immigrant.” Vox singles out Fox News for “emphasizing [Cristhian Bahena] Rivera’s immigrant status,” pointing out that at one point, the “top story on the site focused on Rivera’s immigration status — with the headline ‘Illegal immigrant arrested in murder of Mollie Tibbetts was local farmhand, say police.’” [German Lopez / Vox]

It isn’t wrong to slam Fox for its xenophobic fear-mongering, but Fox is certainly not the only culprit. The Washington Post, under the rubric “True Crime,” ran the headline “Man charged with killing Mollie Tibbetts is an undocumented immigrant, authorities say.” USA Today’s headline was “Undocumented immigrant charged with murder in killing of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.” NBC News was no better: “Mollie Tibbetts case: Undocumented immigrant charged with murder of missing Iowa student.” Nor was “Inside Edition.” Local TV stations across the country did the same. Studies show that neither legal nor illegal immigration has an effect on crime rates, as immigrants commit crime at lower rates than those born in the U.S. And a Pew study found that first-generation immigrants are considerably less likely to commit crime, while second-generation immigrants commit crime at rates closer to that of the general population. This trend shows these new Americans “ditching the approach of their better-behaved parents and moving closer to the American norm of more criminal activity,” writes German Lopez for Vox. “This was found to be the case a whole century ago, too — when the Dillingham Commission in 1911 concluded, No satisfactory evidence has yet been produced to show that immigration has resulted in an increase in crime disproportionate to the increase in adult population. Such comparable statistics of crime and population as it has been possible to obtain indicate that immigrants are less prone to commit crime than are native Americans.’” [German Lopez / Vox]

Recent research shows that mainstream media outlets in the U.S. portray immigrants the way that the Trump administration paints them: as males in detention facilities and in custody. That depiction informs attitudes toward those migrants. “Our analysis confirms that through their choice of images, these news magazines reinforce the narrative of a ‘Latino threat,’ portraying immigrants as criminals unable or unwilling to integrate into the U.S.,” write professors Emily Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed. “We found images of illegality and criminality at a rate far higher than actually occurs in the U.S.’s immigrant population. For instance, while less than a quarter of immigrants in the U.S. are unauthorized, 54 percent of the images we analyzed portrayed undocumented immigrants, including photographs of immigrants illegally crossing the border or in custody of immigration officials. Immigrants were frequently portrayed in detention facilities, implying criminality.”

Asian immigration increased steadily during this period while Mexican immigration declined, [but] the U.S.-Mexico border featured prominently in the images we reviewed.” And even though 49 percent of Latinx immigrants were women as of 2010, images of Latinx immigrants showed only 21.5 percent women. The repeated portrayal of women and children as migrants during the family separation crisis offered a rare respite from the normal media narrative. [Emily Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed / Washington Post]

But earlier this summer, facing fierce criticism over the cruelty of the now-reversed family separation policy, Trump held an event “highlighting the stories of Americans whose family members had been killed by undocumented immigrants,” reported NBC News. “The president blasted the news media … accusing them of ignoring the plight of ‘the American victims of illegal immigration,’ while the victims’ families, called Angel Families, stood behind him holding poster-sized photos of their deceased relative.” The president lamented, “You know you hear the other side, you never hear this side. You don’t know what’s going on. … No major networks send cameras to their homes or display the images of their incredible loved ones.” These families, the ones affected by violence committed by undocumented immigrants, he said, “these are the families the media ignores.” [Dartunorro Clark / NBC News]

Stories From The Appeal

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is considered one of the most progressive district attorneys
in the country. [
Vivien Killilea / Stringer / Getty Images]

Justice in America Episode 7: The New Progressive Prosecutors? After Tuesday’s primary victories for reform candidates, defining a progressive agenda for prosecutors is more pressing than ever. Rashad Robinson joins Josie and Clint. [Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith]

New York Woman Imprisoned for Defending Herself From Abuser Seeks Clemency. Jacqueline Smalls was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing a boyfriend whose ‘hands were his weapons.’ She now joins the ranks of criminalized survivors seeking clemency from Governor Cuomo. [Victoria Law]

‘There’s an All-Out Manhunt’: A Strike Organizer Speaks From Prison. An imprisoned organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said prison officials are trying to identify those leading the strike. [Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

ACLU releases ‘blueprints’ for reducing mass incarceration: Yesterday, the ACLU, along with the Urban Institute and the ACLU’s state affiliates, “published the first 25 of 51 ‘blueprints’ identifying the drivers of mass incarceration in each state, as well as what policy changes could cut their prison populations by 50 percent.” The drivers of mass incarceration vary by state, and the solutions must be state-focused, explains Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. The report on Michigan, for example, notes that 74 percent of incarcerated people are serving long periods of time for violent offenses, often under the state’s especially tough “truth in sentencing” laws, which all but abolished parole. In Oklahoma, by contrast, drug offenses drive incarceration. New Jersey has been the leader in decarceration, but it also leads the country in racial disparities. “Part of the reason we released these blueprints is to avoid another New Jersey,” Ofer said. [C.J. Ciaramella / Reason]

New season of ‘Serial’ takes a systemic look, as does Kim Kardashian: The 2014 podcast that “launched 1,000 armchair murder detectives” with the mystery of whether one man was falsely convicted for killing his teenage ex-girlfriend, comes back with a broader scope later this month. The new season, unlike seasons past, will take on “the whole criminal justice system.” It is a portrayal of a year in the criminal courts of Cleveland. [Amanda Hess / New York Times] Meanwhile, reality TV star Kim Kardashian returned to the White House, now convinced that freeing Alice Johnson was not enough and that across-the-board change was necessary:

Massachusetts DA candidates propose different ways to combat cash bail system: In Massachusetts, poor defendants are still being held in custody on low bail, even after a sweeping criminal justice bill required judges to consider a person’s financial circumstances before setting bail. Cash bail has become a central issue in district attorney races in two counties, with candidates generally opposing the cash bail system while proposing widely disparate plans for reform. One candidate, former federal prosecutor Rachael Rollins, has listed offenses for which she would not request bail, or even prosecute. Shannon McAuliffe, a criminal defense attorney, would seek to eliminate all bail requests—even for violent crimes—instead opting for dangerousness hearings to determine whether defendants pose a threat to public safety. Linda Champion, a former prosecutor, opposes the repeal of cash bail because it could still lead to pretrial incarceration and might impede broader reform efforts. “The more practical solution is to stop prosecuting crimes of poverty,” she said. [Maria Cramer / Boston Globe]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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Transformative results in Massachusetts’s district attorney elections

Transformative results in Massachusetts’s district attorney elections


In This Edition of the Political Report

September 6, 2018: Massachusetts Democrats chose to transform Berkshire and Suffolk counties’ approach to criminal justice issues, selecting candidates who ran for district attorney on ambitious reform agendas. Today I also profile upcoming elections in Delaware and New York—as well a new tool launched by the ACLU.

  • Massachusetts: Transformative results in the Sept. 4 district attorney elections

  • National: ACLU releases state-specific reports on how to cut incarceration by 50 percent

  • Delaware: Attorney General race could reshape state’s prosecutorial practices

  • New York: The Appeal reviews Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon’s platforms

As always, you can use this database to track the results of upcoming primaries before I review them in my next newsletter. (Note that Rhode Island also votes next week; I previewed some of its elections in July.) You can also check out our locality-specific index of past newsletters if you wish to revisit our coverage of the local politics of criminal justice reform.

Sept. 4 primaries: Transformative results in Massachusetts’s district attorney elections

Suffolk County: Boston voters selected Rachael Rollins as the Democratic nominee for district attorney of Suffolk County. In so doing, they shifted away from the record of outgoing DA Dan Conley, a Democrat who has resisted criminal justice reform. Rollins defeated Gregory Henning (the candidate endorsed by Conley) by 17 percentage points, even though this five-person race featured other candidates who like Rollins ran on reform platforms.

“We need to end mass incarceration and restore justice in our communities,” Rollins argued during the campaign. She ran on improving re-entry resources available to people released from incarceration. “There are currently 11 housing authorities in the United States that allow re-entering residents with felonies to live in public housing. As DA, I want to work on having Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop and Revere start pilot programs to increase that number,” she wrote in an ACLU questionnaire. Rollins also features on her website a list of offenses (such as drug possession, trespassing, and disorderly conduct) that she’ll adopt a default policy of not prosecuting; she says that she will instead dismiss these cases or treat them as civil infractions. She has committed to ending the use of cash bail for low-level offenses and to supporting the elimination of all mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges.

Rollins now faces independent Mike Maloney in November. If she wins, she would be the first Black woman to serve as DA of Suffolk County. Only 1 percent of all elected prosecutors in the U.S. are women of color, Matt Ferner writes in HuffPost.

Berkshire County: Rollins had company on Tuesday: Another candidate looking to transform her county’s criminal justice system also won, this time on the other side of the state. Andrea Harrington, a defense lawyer who ran on ending “tough-on-crime” prosecution and confronting “the impact of systemic racism,” defeated Berkshire County district attorney Paul Caccaviello. Also running was Judith Knight, who outlined a reform agenda similar to Harrington’s; together, Harrington and Knight received more than 60 percent of the vote.

Harrington talked with The Appeal’s Eoin Higgins in June about wanting to grow restorative justice. “The conversation over crime has been fear-based; to be a DA, you must run on being ‘tough on crime,’” she told him. “Now, I think because of the opioid crisis, the conversation has opened up and all people are seeing what communities of color have known for a long time: The system doesn’t work.” Harrington supports alternative approaches, including increased diversion programs and new specialized courts with a rehabilitative mission. She has also committed to ending the use of cash bail for low-level offenses and advocating the repeal of mandatory minimums. Harrington will be the only candidate on the November ballot.

Middlesex County: Marian Ryan secured her re-election as DA of Middlesex County, defeating her challenger Donna Patalano with approximately 54 percent of the vote. She will now be the only candidate on the November ballot. As I reported last week, Ryan campaigned on reforms she has championed: She highlighted her new policy of not seeking cash bail for low-level offenses and her support for a new law opposed by nearly all other state prosecutors that curbed mandatory minimums. But Patalano questioned the reliability of her reforms absent precise guidelines and absent the release of data to track implementation, and she pledged to go further on ending cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences. In addition, The Appeal‘s Jessica Brand reported in January that Ryan’s continued use of cash bail raised questions as to what her reform actually amounts to in practice—a matter to keep tracking in the future.

National: ACLU releases state-specific reports on how to cut incarceration by 50 percent

On Sept. 5, the ACLU released 24 state-specific reports on mass incarceration, the product of a two-year partnership with the Urban Institute. Each report details what factors are driving mass incarceration in a given state. And each proposes a roadmap for how that state can reduce racial disparities and cut incarceration by 50 percent.

“Mass incarceration is a national problem, but it is one that is rooted in the states and needs to be fought in the states,” Udi Ofer, the director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, told me. He added that national data can mask factors that play outsize roles in different places, leading people to understate—or overstate—the impact that a particular reform will have. For instance, these reports map out the wide range of effects that would result from a similar set of changes to how drug offenses are sentenced: These reforms would reduce the prison population by 23 percent in Oklahoma, 14 percent in Texas, and only 7 percent in Michigan. That’s because Oklahoma is more resistant to pursuing alternative forms of punishment for lower-level offenses, Ofer notes, while what distinguishes Michigan is that it responds to a category of crimes it calls “assaultive” with harsh sentences and few opportunities for early release.

Nationwide conclusions do jump out, however. The first is that reforms must incorporate racial justice as a stand-alone goal. “We found that reducing the prison population by itself does little to diminish racial disparities in incarceration—and in some cases would worsen them,” the reports warn. They recommend policies that would specifically target such disparities, like ending sentencing enhancement rules that disproportionately affect people of color, ending over-policing, and holding prosecutors accountable for biases in charging decisions.

The second lesson is that any one area of reform will only go so far. The goal espoused by some politicians of cutting incarceration by half demands a broad array of changes that go beyond tackling low-level offenses. “Reaching a 50 percent decarceration goal will require transforming the way the criminal justice system responds to offenses involving violence,” Ofer told me, a statement illustrated in each of these reports by a chart forecasting to what extent different reform would reduce a state’s prison population. Many politicians who advocate criminal justice reform stop short of this step. This makes it striking for Andrew Gillum (Florida Democrats’ nominee for governor) to not exclude such offenses from his proposed overhaul of the sentencing code, as I noted in last week’s newsletter.

Rachael Rollins, Democrats’ nominee for Boston district attorney as of Tuesday, also talks of changing how prosecutors approach all offenses. “We can’t exclusively focus on nonviolent offenders,” she said during the primary. “We need to start having hard conversations about violent offenders and what we are doing to make sure that when they return to the community they have the tools necessary to re-enter successfully.” According to the ACLU’s Massachusetts report, more than two-thirds of criminally sentenced individuals detained in Massachusetts prisons were convicted of an offense involving violence. The report specifically flags the state’s harsh sentencing guidelines and its limits on opportunities for parole and early release.

Alongside these reports, the Urban Institute has launched a forecaster tool whose users can input policy changes to see what impact they would have on a state’s incarceration rate.

Delaware: Attorney general race could reshape state’s prosecutorial practices

Delaware is a rare state that does not elect prosecutors, instead entrusting its attorney general to appoint them. This year’s incumbentless attorney general race is thus crucial for the state’s criminal justice system. In the Sept. 6 Democratic primary—the first contested primary in 20 years—the four candidates are Kathy Jennings, Chris Johnson, Tim Mullaney, and LaKresha Roberts. All except Johnson (a defense attorney) have worked in Delaware’s Department of Justice (DOJ); Mullaney has also worked at the national Fraternal Order of Police. Jennings, who supervised criminal prosecutions while at the DOJ, had raised more money than all her opponents combined as of mid-August.

The campaign has mostly broken the mold of “tough-on-crime” campaigning, according to the Delaware News Journal’s Xerxes Wilson. The candidates agree that the state incarcerates too many people—and too many Black people in particular—and all talk about bail reform and stronger diversion programs. “There has not been this public discourse around structural racism and its impact on the black community and the relationship to law enforcement in the legal system,” said Raye Avery, president of the Committee of 100 Black Women Delaware chapter.

That said, the candidates’ agendas differ significantly, as is visible in their responses to this ACLU questionnaire or in debates. For one, Mullaney’s platform is less progressive. He is the only candidate to support reinstating the death penalty for certain crimes. (Delaware’s Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 2016, but many lawmakers favor overturning that decision.) He is also the only candidate to reject “the elimination of the automatic issuance of warrants for failures to pay fines” and to oppose legalizing marijuana.

Meanwhile, Johnson says that his “top priority is to end mass incarceration.” “Mass incarceration is bankrupting Delaware, in both a moral and fiscal sense,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed that draws policy lessons from a 2017 prison riot. He argues that the riot resulted from “systemic problems” that must be addressed through decarceration. “Rather than putting more officers into dangerous working conditions … I propose that we manipulate the other side of this equation: We must rapidly and dramatically reduce our prison population.” He has said elsewhere that, with his reforms, “Delaware could see a 10-20% decrease in its prison population by 2020.” In the op-ed, Johnson specifically commits to ending prosecutors’ habit of overcharging and to not prosecuting some nonviolent cases. He is the only candidate to tell the ACLU that no one under the age of 18 should be prosecuted as an adult, to support repealing all mandatory minimum sentences (Jennings and Roberts do say that they favor scaling them back), and to pledge that he would instruct prosecutors to not seek death sentences even if the legislature reinstates it.

In August, people incarcerated at the Vaughn prison—the site of the 2017 riot—engaged in a hunger strike as part of the nationwide protest movement. “This is the second time in two months that Delaware inmates have refused to eat in protest,” the Delaware News Journal‘s Esteban Parra reports.

New York: The Appeal reviews Cuomo and Nixon’s criminal justice agendas

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attitude on criminal justice has swung wildly in recent years. In 2016 he vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have strengthened New York’s public defense system, and he has rarely used his clemency powers. But this year Cuomo announced that he would restore the voting rights of tens of thousands of people by issuing pardons, and signed a bill establishing an independent commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct.

In the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, Cuomo faces Cynthia Nixon, who has claimed credit for pushing the governor leftward—including over his use of pardons. Nixon’s campaign has emphasized criminal justice reform. She “made legalizing recreational marijuana the first policy plank of her campaign for governor, framing it as a necessary step toward reducing racial inequities in the criminal justice system,” Vivian Wang reported in the New York Times in April.

In August, The Appeal published an in-depth article by Emma Whitford on Cuomo and Nixon’s agendas. In exploring their views on policing, pretrial detention, discovery rules, clemency, and other criminal justice issues, Whitford notes important areas of agreement (closing Rikers Island, for one). But she also details divergences in the scope of their proposals. For instance, Nixon is running on eliminating all solitary confinement via executive order. And while Cuomo proposes “ending cash bail for people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies,” Nixon wishes to end it “regardless of the arresting charge.” In addition, some reform advocates are urging both candidates to be more ambitious in some areas, for instance on guidelines they are proposing for clemency and for parole review. “We have 10,000 people serving life sentences, and that’s where the governor has to zero in on,” says Steve Zeidman, a professor at City University of New York School of Law.

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

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