2018 Elections Are Already Having Consequences for Criminal Justice Reform

Published as part of the Jan. 10, 2019 Political Report newsletter.

Florida

About 1.4 million Floridians regained the right to vote on Jan. 8, when a constitutional amendment ending the disenfranchisement of most people who complete a felony sentence went into effect. One of the first Floridians to register was Desmond Meade, a formerly incarcerated person who led the push for Amendment 4 with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The Florida Times-Union and the Tampa Bay Times reported on other people who registered. “Now the people making laws and writing laws are going to be listening to me,” said a Jacksonville resident who was disenfranchised over a felony conviction for driving with a suspended license and who hopes to get lawmakers to improve re-entry services. (I recommend perusing this Twitter thread by the Times-Union’s Andrew Pantazi detailing individual Floridians’ stories.) One complication flagged by the Miami Herald is that the Division of Elections is not yet running new registration through its felony database; it will do so later in the year, potentially after the legislature proposes a more restrict understanding of what it means to complete a sentence like over payments of court fines and fees.

Louisiana

In November, Louisianans voted to eliminate the state’s Jim Crow-era rules that allowed people to be convicted of a felony by a nonunanimous jury. This rule has contributed to the state’s high incarceration rate, and it has disproportionately harmed African Americans, who were likelier to be convicted over a holdout’s objection. This constitutional change went into effect on Jan. 1. However, as the Associated Press writes, not only does this change offer no retroactive relief for people convicted by nonunanimous juries in the past, but such verdicts will continue: Convictions obtained for any offense that occurred before 2019 need not be unanimous.

Maine

Shortly after becoming governor of Maine, Janet Mills issued an executive order to expand Medicaid as provided by the Affordable Care Act. Mainers voted to expand Medicaid in November 2017, but Governor Paul LePage blocked the expansion for more than a year. Erin Schumaker reports in HuffPost on the impact that Mills’s decision will have on the fight against Maine’s opioid crisis by enabling Mainers to access treatment and addiction medication. (See also: The Political Report discusses how advocates nationwide connected the dots between Medicaid access and drug addiction on the 2018 campaign trail.)

North Carolina

Garry McFadden, the new sheriff of Mecklenburg County (the jurisdiction that includes Charlotte), has ended the practice of putting 16- and 17-year-old youth in solitary confinement in the county jail, the Charlotte Observer reports. These teenagers sat in tiny windowless cells for 23 hours a day. North Carolina has already banned solitary confinement for youth in state prisons. “If you continue to disgrace [a young offender], and you continue to strip him of his dignity and you never give him a foundation to be a productive citizen—on day 13, when he gets out of the jail, what happens?” McFadden asked.

Texas

Ever since a federal court ruled that the bail system of Harris County (Houston) was unconstitutional, GOP misdemeanor judges were fighting to uphold the system. But Democrats swept all 15 criminal court positions that were on November’s ballot, and this week the new judges asked the court to dismiss their predecessors’ appeal. Harris County is now discussing a settlement with the plaintiffs. County Commissioner Rodney Ellis praised the judges’ move in the Houston Chronicle: “Not only does the existing bail system clearly violate the Constitution and our fundamental principles of liberty and equal treatment, it does nothing to protect communities or reduce crime.”