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Stage Is Set for 2019 Mississippi DA Elections, and a Hawaii Voting Rights Proposal Stalls

Also today: an interview with Shani Curry Mitchell, candidate for Rochester District Attorney

In This Edition of the Political Report

March 7, 2019:

  • Hawaii: Proposal to abolish felony disenfranchisement stalls in Democratic legislature

  • Mississippi: Head of reform group jumps in Jackson’s DA race, one of just five elections for prosecutor that will be contested this year

  • New York: Shani Curry Mitchell, candidate for Rochester DA, discusses state reforms

  • Legislative roundup: North Dakota legislature adopts two reform bills, Texas holds hearing on decriminalizing marijuana, and more

You can visit The Appeal: Political Report’s website to read our latest analyses of the local politics of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. You can also visit our page on criminal justice developments in state legislatures, featuring a new interactive map.

Hawaii: Proposal to abolish felony disenfranchisement stalls in Democratic legislature

A legislative committee in Hawaii’s Senate voted in February to advance a bill abolishing felony disenfranchisement, a significant move since Maine, Puerto Rico, and Vermont are the only places in the United States that do not disenfranchise people because of a felony conviction.

But the deadline for the legislation to make it out of committees has now expired with no action from the other committees to which it was referred. This means that Senate Bill 1503 is effectively tabled for the year. The bill will carry over to 2020, and proponents told the Political Report that they would press ahead then.

Hawaii currently strips people of the right to vote while they are incarcerated for a felony conviction, and restores it upon their release from prison. SB 1503 would reform that practice by enabling incarcerated people to cast absentee ballots. State advocates describe amending this step as crucial to achieving a healthier democracy. “If we want people to be full human beings and full citizens, we need to make sure that everybody has the right to vote,” Kat Brady, the coordinator of the state group Community Alliance on Prisons, told me. “What happens in the voting booth affects their families. The families are sending the money for phone calls, for commissary stuff, so it’s ridiculous to think that there’s no nexus between voting and citizenship and incarceration.” Janet Mason, the chairperson of the legislative committee of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, which has also championed this legislation, agrees that the right to vote is not something to take away. “People don’t lose their citizenship just because they’re sentenced to prison,” she said.

Brady and Mason both also argued that maintaining voting rights can facilitate eventual re-entry by connecting individuals to their communities. “If we want people to enter the community as full citizens, then what better way than to help them engage” while they are in prison, Brady said. The isolation of incarcerated Hawaiians is exacerbated by the fact that a substantial share are in out-of-state facilities; 1,450 are detained in a private prison in Arizona.

In addition, the state’s carceral system disproportionately ensnares Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who are therefore also disproportionately excluded from the electoral process.

According to a 2010 report by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Native Hawaiians make up 39 percent of the incarcerated population but only 24 percent of the general population and 27 percent of those arrested. The study found specifically that “for any given determination of guilt, Native Hawaiians are much more likely to get a prison sentence than almost all other groups, except for Native Americans,” and this even “controlling for age, gender, and type of charge.”

That measure is directly relevant to voting rights since Hawaii uses incarceration—as opposed to other forms of sentence like probation—as the specific basis on which to disenfranchise people who are convicted of a felony.

State Senator Maile Shimabukuro pointed to the overrepresentation of native Hawaiians in the state’s prisons to explain why she was sponsoring this reform. “It promotes engagement for disenfranchised segments of our society,” she told me via email. “This bill is a step toward re-integrating native Hawaiians and other minorities back into our political process, and showing them that their voices matter.”

Besides Hawaii, bills that fully abolish felony disenfranchisement have been introduced in at least six other states in the present legislative sessions.

You can read the remainder of the story about Hawaii’s disenfranchisement reform, including state advocates’ thoughts on what stalled the bill this year, here.

Mississippi: Head of reform group jumps in Jackson’s DA race, one of just five elections for prosecutor that will be contested this year

Mississippi’s local elections are still nine months away, and already 16 of the state’s 22 district attorneys are guaranteed to win re-election because no one filed to run against them.

One of them is Doug Evans, the DA of the Fifth District since 1991. A Democrat, Evans has drawn national attention this year as one of the protagonists of the podcast “In the Dark” (produced by American Public Media), which documents how he has put a man named Curtis Flowers on trial six separate times over the same murder allegations. Later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Flowers’s appeal against Evans’s sustained pattern of excluding African Americans from juries. Even if the Supreme Court overturns Flowers’s conviction, which would be Flowers’s sixth successful appeal, his fate will still be in the hands of Evans, who will be in office for the foreseeable future and who could try him for a seventh time.

This is the fourth consecutive election where Evans is unopposed. This is a common pattern in Mississippi. In addition to the 16 incumbent DAs against whom no one filed to run against this year, there is a seventh candidate who isn’t even an incumbent and yet is now sure to win: Assistant District Attorney Daniella Shorter is the only candidate running to replace the retiring Alexander Martin in the 22nd District. It is also a common pattern nationwide. The majority of Wisconsin counties haven’t held a single contested DA election this decade, for instance.

The difficulty in fielding candidates is an obstacle to reformers who have increasingly used local elections to elect DAs who defy the job’s traditional tough-on-crime mold. That was the case in Mississippi in 2015, when Scott Colom won the 16th District on a reform-oriented platform that de-emphasized incarceration for drug offenses. Colom is unopposed this year.

All of this still leaves five elections that will feature some competition this year. Three (the 10th, 12th, and 14th districts) will be contested only in November’s general election; the other two (the sixth and seventh districts) will be decided in the August Democratic primaries.

You can review the full list of DA candidates in this Political Report master list. The map below provides details on those elections that might produce a change in leadership this year:

From the standpoint of criminal justice reform, the year’s marquee election is likely to be the one to replace Robert Shuler Smith, the DA of the Seventh District, who is running for governor. The district contains only Hinds County, the state’s most populous county and home to Jackson. The county’s legal system has drawn investigative fire. In 2016, the Clarion Ledger exposed “the often staggering amount of time” the county was detaining people before indicting them, with one person held 467 days for a burglary for which he was never indicted, a situation that led a local judge to confront Smith’s office last year. The three candidates running to replace Smith are Stanley Alexander (an assistant attorney general who also ran in 2015), Jody Owens (the chief policy counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center and managing attorney of the group’s state office), and Darla Palmer (a Jackson-based defense attorney). All are running as Democrats.

As managing attorney of the SPLC’s Mississippi office, Owens has played a role in pushing for reform in the state. In 2015, he penned an essay in Politico Magazine on what he called a “civil rights crisis in America,” namely “a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ that sucks vulnerable children out of the classroom at an alarming rate and funnels them into the harsh world of police, courts and prison cells.” And in a lengthy 2018 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, he discussed his group’s litigation alleging prison abuses, problems with private prisons, and the prison strike against forced labor. “The only time a suppressed group of individuals, whether they be prisoners or civil rights workers, will ever have any rights is if they take ownership of it,” he told Goodman. Owens has also been a part of the SPLC’s ongoing lawsuit challenging the state’s disenfranchisement rules.

Mississippi’s 22 DA elections will take place under harshly exclusionary circumstances since the state imposes a lifetime voting ban on anyone convicted of one of a list of 22 offenses. According to a Sentencing Project study, 9 percent of the state’s voting-age population, and 16 percent of the state’s Black adults, were disenfranchised as of 2016.

This means that the state’s 22 prosecutors will be elected—or re-elected—without the input of the hundreds of thousands of Mississippians who have been most affected by the decisions and policies of their offices. “We can’t have true criminal justice reform until we restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated individuals so they can have their full citizenship back, and their right to vote,” state Representative Kabir Karriem told me in February of efforts to change Mississippi laws.

A standalone version of this story is available here.

New York: Shani Curry Mitchell, candidate for Rochester DA, discusses state reforms

Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers have been discussing changes to criminal justice policies like the bail system and the state’s discovery rules, which currently enable prosecutors to withhold evidence from the defense until the day of a trial, including not providing it before a plea deal. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) has opposed proposed reforms. Sandra Doorley, the DA of Monroe County (home to Rochester) and DAASNY’s president-elect, issued a series of warnings in February: She detailed her opposition to legalizing marijuana, released a statement cautioning against Cuomo’s proposal to eliminate cash bail, and wrote an op-ed suggesting that Cuomo was not adequately considering victims. Bail is an important issue in Monroe; a 2018 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that the county has in the past held a large number of people on bail for low-level charges.

Also in February, the Monroe County Democratic Party endorsed Shani Curry Mitchell, a former assistant district attorney who now works as a municipal attorney in Rochester, in the county’s 2019 DA election. Doorley, a Republican, is running for re-election, and she could meet Mitchell in November’s general election. The Political Report talked to Mitchell on Tuesday about her views on the proposed changes to bail and discovery, as well as about marijuana and DAASNY. Below is a lightly edited excerpt. You can read the full interview here.

[One major legislative issue] is the proposal to reform the state’s discovery rules by requiring that prosecutors provide relevant information to the defense within 15 days of arraignment. Do you approve such a requirement, and would you follow such a rule if you became DA and reform was still not adopted?

We desperately need reform regarding discovery rules. I practiced first in the state of Georgia as a prosecutor, and this was not an issue. We provided discovery well in advance of trial, probably within 30 days of arraignment or indictment. This was not a practice I was used to when I began practicing here in New York. I believe, as the governor lays out, that especially before any individual takes a plea, they should have all the information laid out before them. If there’s something that needs protection as to witnesses, for child victim or for witness intimidation, we have mechanisms in place already that would address these issues. I applaud the bill that’s out there by Assemblyman Joe Lentol and Senator Jamaal Bailey, the discovery bill, as well as the governor’s proposals. I applaud their actions. But we shouldn’t have to wait on legislation to do that. That is something that I would definitely set out in my office

In an interview last month, your opponent indicated concern with legalizing marijuana, and said that she had not adopted a systematic policy of declining to prosecute marijuana possession cases. What are your views on marijuana reform? Should it be legalized, and would you adopt a policy of not prosecuting its possession?

I won’t be prosecuting violation and possession marijuana cases. I won’t be. You have Albany, you have Manhattan, you have Brooklyn, you even have Buffalo, who have come out and said that this is the policy we are instituting in our areas. It doesn’t make sense that Monroe County would still would have a policy where we are prosecuting marijuana possession cases. Whether it should be legalized or not is not my decision to be made. We just know that it’s moving in that direction.

The full interview with Shani Curry Mitchell, including her thoughts on bail reform and youth justice, is available here.

Legislative roundup: North Dakota legislature adopts two reform bills, Texas holds hearing on decriminalizing marijuana, and more

New Mexico: House Bill 57, the bill to fully abolish felony disenfranchisement, moved past one House committee in January. But on Monday, the Judiciary Committee approved the bill while narrowing it: The amended version enfranchises people once they are released from prison, but not incarcerated people. State Representative Damon Ely, a Democrat who sits on both committees that heard the bill, had indicated during the aforementioned January hearing that he did not support incarcerated people’s voting rights. Still, this amended version is a major change as well. It would enfranchise people on parole and probation, who represent the vast majority of people disenfranchised in New Mexico, according to a Sentencing Project report.

New York: Assemblymember Dan Quart is once again pushing to repeal the state ban on owning “gravity knives,” Jon Campbell reports in The Appeal. It has swept up thousands “for owning what critics argue are common work tools,” Campbell writes. Governor Andrew Cuomo has previously vetoed bills reforming this, as the state’s district attorneys association urged him to.

North Dakota: The legislature overwhelmingly adopted two criminal justice bills last week. House Bill 1183 ends mandatory minimum requirements for some offenses involving drug manufacturing and dealing. And House Bill 1039 raises to 10 from 7 the age at which children can be referred to the juvenile justice system. The Senate adopted the bill unanimously last week, a month after the House did so by an overwhelming majority. “To me, it still seems like 10 is quite young,” one lawmaker said during the House debates. These bills now head to Governor Doug Burgum’s desk for his signature, though both passed by veto-proof margins.

Texas: The state is considering a series of reforms to decriminalize marijuana and expand access to medical marijuana. On Monday, a legislative committee held a hearing on House Bill 63, which does the former. Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment that the bill’s goals are “to see no arrests, no jail time and most importantly no criminal records.” Marijuana Moment writes that House Bill 63 would reduce possession of up to one ounce of marijuana it to a civil offense punishable with a fine. However, prosecutors could still file misdemeanor charges for a third possession violation. Michael Arria reports in The Appeal that the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas is an obstacle to reforming marijuana laws.

You can visit our legislative roundup page for more on states’ legislative debates.

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