This has been one of the most contentious presidential elections of our lifetime, and we’re now taking a breath before the next administration takes its seat.
The close race has been called in favor of former Vice President Joseph Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris. And with the new Administration looking to take power in Washington, many are looking forward to opportunities to change and have their voices heard. And of course, we know that none of the deep-seated problems of racial injustice and corrupt systems that have bubbled up to the surface during the last few years started or ended with President Trump.
As a candidate, Joe Biden promised to end cash bail, the private prison system, mandatory-minimum sentencing and the death penalty. Kamala Harris’ history as the District Attorney of San Francisco and later, Attorney General of California, has left some doubting her ability to tackle justice reform. As we figure out how we’re going to hold the incoming administration accountable for not only righting the wrongs of the last four years, but charting a better, more equitable course for this country, we must remember this election was also meaningful for those working in the criminal legal space.
Reform-minded District Attorneys were elected in places like Orlando, Florida and Austin, Texas, adding to the wave of progressive District Attorneys across the country. Candidates like Jamaal Bowman were elected to Congress after running on a platform that included criminal justice reform. Voters in King County, Washington voted to scale back the power of the sheriff’s office while voters made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs including cocaine and heroin, and expand support for addiction services.
And these are just a handful of examples.
Voters across the country realized some huge wins for criminal justice reform this year, and Represent Justice Ambassadors April Grayson and Jarrett Harper reflected on what all this meant on a recent Facebook Live moderated by Represent Justice CEO Daniel Forkkio.
Some of the biggest wins on the ballot came in California, a state whose legislation often has ripple effects throughout the rest of the country.
In California, Jarrett became one of thousands of people on parole that will now have their voting rights restored after leaving prison with the passage of Prop. 17. That’s an estimated 40,000 active, tax-paying members of communities that will become new voters once the law goes into effect.
“I’m proud to be a Californian. There are so many other things we need to change, but today as a powerful voter, I’m proud to be a Californian,” Jarrett said after reflecting on the passage of Prop. 17.
“There’ve been so many things put in place to suppress the Black vote,” April Grayson added. “We didn’t even do anything wrong to have our rights stripped, we were Black. To say yes to Prop. 17 is to say everyone’s voice matters, not just the people you deem worthy.”
Also in California, voters shot down Proposition 20, which would have undone years of hard-won systemic reforms, and exacerbated existing racial inequities in our legal system. Prop. 20 would have doubled the list of violent crimes, lowered the threshold for felony theft, and required the collection of DNA for certain misdemeanors, among other huge steps backward for the fight for reform. This is significant, as legislation in the country’s most populous state often has ripple effects around the country.
“What our communities need is care,” Jarrett said. “Prop. 20 came from law enforcement associations, the same people who hold guard over our brothers and sisters inside. We say care first because a lot of time we don’t have the guardians we need watching over our children.”
On a more local level, residents of Los Angeles County saw the push to redirect funds from local police departments and into community services gain traction with the passage of Measure J.
Measure J requires Los Angeles County — the largest system of incarceration in the state — to budget at least 10% of the county’s locally-generated, unrestricted general fund to community investment programs to counter the impacts of racial injustice. These are programs like jail diversion, mental health care, housing and youth development.
“What measure J did, that’s what we meant by defunding the police,” April said. “Let’s take some of the money they get, and give it back to our communities. If [you] really want to see a model of defunding the police, this is a perfect idea of what that looks like.”
While we celebrate thousands of people having their voting rights restored, and the election of stakeholders deeply invested in using their power to build a fairer, redemptive justice system, the work is not over.
In Georgia, voters are gearing up for two run-off elections in January that will decide which party has control over the Senate, and how smoothly congress will run. And after the new administration has been inaugurated, the public will have to hold politicians to account for their campaign promises.
Before the election, Represent Justice put together Free Our Vote — a toolkit by and for system-impacted voters. We traced the legacy of felony disenfranchisement and helped folks better understand their ballots and navigate the voting process. We did this because we know that the more of us who vote, and who have a better understanding of the system, the better off we all are.
And that was clear in this election. A record nearly 160 million people voted, and across the country we saw people choose officials with a vested interest in changing the system. We saw nearly 50,000 people on parole regain their voting rights in California. And when it comes time for us to vote again, we’ll have an even bigger group of voters ready to use their democratic power.