RELEASE: Progressive Criminal Justice Ballot Initiatives Won Big in the 2020 Election, New CAP Column Finds

Washington, D.C. — Progressive criminal justice policies fared well at the ballot box on November 3, with voters across the country approving critical reforms, according to a new column published today by the Center for American Progress. From legalizing marijuana to establishing independent police oversight boards, voters altered the political landscape, advancing criminal justice policies with the potential to break down barriers to racial equity, promote transparency and accountability in policing, and restore the right to vote for people with a felony record.

The ballot initiative process, which currently exists in only 24 states, gives voters the opportunity to pass or reject proposed state legislation. While the details of the ballot initiatives vary, they represent an overall trend that progressive criminal justice policies are gaining support across the United States. In particular, shifts in opinion concerning drug policy, policing, and rights for justice-involved populations highlight the growing popularity of progressive reforms and are a crucial step forward in creating prosperity for people of color—particularly Black people—as well as low-income communities, all of whom have been harmed by the lasting effects of the war on drugs.

Some key initiatives approved included:

  • Drug policy wins. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. South Dakota became the first state to concurrently approve both medical and recreational marijuana, bypassing the typical two-step process of first legalizing medical marijuana and then approving recreational use at a later date. Mississippi voters approved Initiative 65, which legalizes medical marijuana for patients with one or more of the 20-plus qualifying medical conditions, rejecting the more restrictive option.
  • Policing-related reforms. There were 18 ballot initiatives related to policing operations and oversight; all 18 passed in their respective localities, with several of them—including Columbus, Ohio; Oakland, California; San Diego; Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh; Kyle, Texas; and King County, Washington—either creating new or strengthening existing law enforcement oversight commissions. Philadelphia voters approved two crucial ballot initiatives that will modify policing practices, providing greater ability and power to investigate police misconduct.
  • Rights for justice-involved individuals. Several localities approved ballot initiatives to correct policies that take away rights related to social, political, and economic inclusion—such as the right to vote—from individuals based on their criminal record. Nebraska’s Amendment 1 and Utah’s Amendment C remove slavery and involuntary servitude as punishments for criminal offenses from their state constitutions. Nebraska and Utah join Colorado in overturning this exception at the state level. In California, voters passed Proposition 17, restoring the right to vote for people who have felony convictions and are on parole.

“The election was a resounding win for progressive criminal justice reform, even in traditionally conservative states. The success of these ballot initiatives shows that Americans are ready to reimagine our criminal justice system. The victories on November 3 are a promising step toward a more just, fair, and equitable justice system for all,” says Betsy Pearl, associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.

Read the column: “Progressive Criminal Justice Ballot Initiatives Won Big in the 2020 Election” by Sarah Figgatt.

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