Midterm elections usher in long overdue justice wins in the states, but more progress is needed

Angela Hanks and Kisha Bird

Last Tuesday, justice was on the ballot in several states and won.

Floridians overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which re-enfranchises an estimated 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people previously denied the right to vote. Louisianans voted to end non-unanimous jury convictions, which have caused disproportionate convictions of Black defendants. Coloradoans passed a ballot initiative to outlaw what’s been called prison slavery.

While these policy changes represent important progress that will meaningfully improve millions of people’s lives, they also highlight just how much further the nation must go to unwind a system of overcriminalization, mass incarceration, and injustice that’s rooted in racism.

Indeed, all the policies voters rejected last week were passed during Jim Crow and helped prevent Black Americans from exercising their full rights as citizens of the United States.

Florida, Louisiana, and Colorado are not alone. The language in the Colorado constitution mirrors the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery or involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime,” and across the country, more than half of those incarcerated in state or federal prisons work for low or no wages. Iowa and Kentucky still permanently disenfranchise all individuals convicted of a felony, and seven other states permanently disenfranchise at least some portion of their residents upon release.

Unfortunately, these wins for equity and justice in the states are not the full story of what transpired last week. 

In one of his final acts as Attorney General, Jeff Sessions signed a memorandum to restrict the power of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to enact consent decrees. Consent decrees, which are court-ordered agreements between the DOJ and state and local law enforcement agencies, are one of the justice system’s critical tools for addressing and ending abuses, particularly on unfair police practices toward African Americans and other communities of color. Through this memo, Sessions is  making it more difficult for career lawyers to approve these agreements; requiring DOJ to provide evidence of violations beyond unconstitutional behavior; and requiring sunset dates on the agreements that do not correspond with any accountability measures to ensure police have made reforms or addressed civil rights violations. 

The federal government under President Trump’s leadership has worked tirelessly to unwind key justice gains and target communities of color. For example, CLASP’s recent Unjustice report documents DOJ actions to attack promising police reforms, reverse progress on prosecutorial discretion, and criminalize youth of color.

Now, Congress and the White House are in serious negotiations to advance legislation, the First Step Act, which aims to make prison reform improvements and implement reentry strategies for returning citizens.

Although we are glad to see congressional momentum behind justice reform, the bill as currently drafted falls short in delivering meaningful reforms to a deeply flawed system. In addition to urging Congress to consider necessary improvements to this bipartisan compromise bill, CLASP strongly encourages Congress to critically examine the civil rights and justice roll backs that the Trump Administration has pushed through administratively and provide oversight to hold the administration accountable.

Advancing a positive justice agenda is crucial for achieving racial and economic justice. Mass incarceration has devastated communities of color and exacerbated poverty and structural inequality. Individuals experience collateral consequences of incarceration or a criminal record that have lasting effects and are a significant barrier to employment, housing, and overall economic security.

CLASP applauds the positive movement on justice in the states last week and welcomes the growing momentum in Congress. However, we urge policymakers, advocates, and others to take a more holistic view of how, as a nation, we are dismantling or replicating institutional racism in the justice system and continue the important work of reimagining a justice system that is currently unequal and unjust.