Legislative roundup: Miami officials plan to counter Florida’s “poll tax” law, California’s law restricting felony murder gains a powerful ally, and more
Many of the laws that govern the American criminal justice system are set at the state level. Explore the latest developments on criminal justice reform in state legislatures around the country with the Political Report’s interactive tool. Updates drawn from the Political Report newsletter, written by Daniel Nichanian.
The battle continues over Senate Bill 437, the 2018 law that reduced the conditions under which someone can be convicted of murder for an act they did not commit. Nearly all DAs have since been fighting the law, denying potential relief for thousands convicted under the felony murder doctrine. But Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, just sided with the legislature last week: His office filed a legal brief defending the reform’s constitutionality.
The death penalty will remain abolished. Ever since the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2016, there have been legislative rumblings to reinstate it. Democrats govern the state, but enough support such a measure to make it at least viable. The House actually adopted such a bill in 2017, but it stalled in the Senate; and half of the initial sponsors of a 2019 version were Democrats (William Carson and Bruce Ennis). Governor John Carney has said he may sign a reinstatement bill. But the legislature adjourned for the year without taking any action on this.
Some Democratic prosecutors are developing plans to mitigate the impact of the “poll tax” law, which Republicans adopted this spring to require that people pay off their court fines and fees before regaining the right to vote. The Appeal reports that a coalition of powerful Miami-Dade County officials is saying that most people with outstanding fines and fees are likely to be able to vote, despite those obligations. And the group, which includes the county’s state attorney and its public defender, has a plan to help them.
Oregon allowed the use of attack dogs in cell extractions, which led to the mauling of a man in 2017. The state has now banned this practice; the bill was adopted by the legislature in the spring and signed into law by Governor Kate Brown in June. A Human Rights Watch report already examined the use of attack dogs against incarcerated people in 2006. “Some prisoners will wrap blankets, towels, and even toilet paper around their limbs to try to protect themselves from dog bites,” the report documented.
Oregon has overhauled its youth justice system. Senate Bill 1008 abolishes life without parole for minors, expands opportunities for early release, and restricts the prosecution of children as adults. Read more in the Appeal: Political Report.
A rare Texas reform that succeeded this year was a bill to legalize hemp. This is now creating confusion. Many DAs have said they are stopping all pot prosecution because they lack the resources to test products to differentiate marijuana from hemp. Governor Greg Abbott and other GOP officials are now contesting this. “Criminal cases may be prosecuted with lab tests or with the tried-and-true use of circumstantial evidence,” they wrote in a letter. Dallas County DA John Creuzot replied that his responsibility is “to ensure that people are not prosecuted for possessing substances that are legal.”