Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

Colorado, Washington and Several Michigan Cities Advance Sensible Drug Policy
Voters in Colorado and Washington made history when they took a stand for sensible drug law reform, choosing to legalize small quantities of marijuana for adults. Arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana constitute one of the most common drug-related points of entry into the already bloated criminal justice system and disproportionately target people of color despite the fact that white people use marijuana at higher rates. We’re thrilled that Alison Holcomb, Campaign Director for New Approach Washington, will be returning to her position as Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of Washington where she will work on implementing the new law.

In Michigan, several cities saw successful marijuana reform, with Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint voting to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and Ypsilanti voting to make it the lowest law enforcement priority.

This development signals a major shift in public attitudes about criminal justice: Americans are tired of laws that clog our criminal justice system with nonviolent offenders. You can read more about the ACLU’s support of the state measures in our blog post.

Massachusetts Opens the Door to Medical Marijuana
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, voters insisted that patients’ ability to access the most effective medicine should trump outdated political arguments and affirmatively chose to legalize the humanitarian use of medical marijuana. The ACLU of Massachusetts is proud to have supported this measure to legalize the humanitarian use of medical marijuana. For more information, read the ACLU of Massachusetts’ press release.

Arkansas Voters Narrowly Reject Medical Marijuana
By a margin of 51% to 49%, Arkansas voters narrowly declined to become the first Southern state to approve the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Although the result is unfortunate, the extremely narrow margin is cause for celebration, especially considering that polling predicted a much wider margin: 54% to 38%, according to this article from last month.

New Mexico Protects the Constitutional Right to Counsel
61% of New Mexico voters approved a state constitutional amendment to protect the right to counsel by establishing the Public Defender Department as an independent state agency. The amendment authorizes creation of an independent commission that would appoint the state's chief public defender, who would then oversee the department, freeing indigent defense representation from the political process. Information about the initiative can be found here.

California Keeps the Death Penalty
With sadness we note that California’s Prop 34, which would have replaced the death penalty in that state with life without parole, was defeated 53% to 47%. While the loss is disappointing, the percent in favor suggests that efforts to change public opinion are working. In 1978, when Californians voted to reinstate the death penalty, support for the death penalty topped 70%. As recently as September, polls showed only 38% favoring the repeal. Though it fell short, the amazing efforts of our colleagues advocating for Prop 34 demonstrated that a concerted public education campaign can move voters. We are proud of our role in this important fight, and will continue to work to abolish the death penalty across the nation. Natasha Minsker, Campaign Manager of Yes on 34, will be returning to the ACLU of Northern California as its Death Penalty Policy Director. A blog post we wrote before the election is here.

Californians Choose Sentencing Reform
Voters in California solidly approved Prop 36, which limits the state’s 3 Strikes Law by removing the possibility of a life sentence for most nonviolent third strikes. The success of this measure demonstrates that the public is ready to embrace sentencing reform, and we are hopeful that the future will bring further reforms in California and beyond. For more about states that have begun making smart reforms, read our report, “Smart Reform is Possible.”

Oklahoma Voters Approve Parole Reform
Until Tuesday, Oklahoma was the only state that still required the governor to approve every parole. But voters passed Question 762, which removes the governor from the parole process for persons convicted of nonviolent crimes. The cost-effective measure will increase Oklahoma’s parole rate, which is currently one of the nation’s lowest. At the Oklahoma Gazette, the ACLU of Oklahoma’s new legal director Brady Henderson talks about why the ACLU supported the measure.

For a round-up of this year’s results, The Crime Report has produced an interactive map with information on ballot measures and referendums in 17 states related to criminal justice policy.

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