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Criminal justice reform on the ballot

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Daniel Nichanian on an important progressive victory last night in Multnomah county (which is Portland and a few inner suburbs):

It may be the widest election win yet for progressives in a contested prosecutor’s race. Mike Schmidt, who ran on a criminal justice reform platform, was elected district attorney on Tuesday in Multnomah County, which is home to Portland, some of its suburbs, and more than 800,000 residents. He had more than 75 percent of the vote in results available on Wednesday.

He pointed to his 50 percentage point margin as evidence of the “breadth” of the coalition around reform. When he talked to labor groups during the campaign, he recounted, they pressed him to talk about “the systems, and how race has played into the criminal justice system, the school to prison pipeline. You merge that with the activist groups that have been working on these issues, with groups that have been standing with immigrants in our communities, everybody brought similar goals but different takes on it.”

This margin is all the more remarkable in the context of Oregon’s punitive prosecutorial culture, of a DA association that has fought recent reforms, and of a prison population that has kept rising, bucking national trends. Oregon is one of only six states where incarceration reached a new peak in 2018, according to a new analysis by the Sentencing Project.

Of particular interest to me is this tidbit:

He is among a growing list of candidates who are winning DA races after stating their view that incarcerated people should retain the right to vote, a significant turnaround in the issue’s national politics.

This, of course, is the voting rights approach pursued by Maine and Vermont. Polling has suggested that reformist measures along the lines of Florida’s 2018 initiative, which streamline or even make automatic the restoration of voting rights post-release or post-sentence completion, are quite popular, but going the full Maine/Vermont and simply separating criminal penalties and voting rights altogether is not. My own view is unambiguously with Schmidt, Maine, and Vermont, on multiple grounds. Thinking about voting as an individual right, no defensible account of the purpose of punishment or rehabilitation points to disenfranchisement. But more importantly (in my view), if we think about about voting as a kind of power held and wielded by social groups, and we should, the persistent social fact of uneven prosecution of crimes across relevant social groups necessarily puts felon disenfranchisement at odds with political equality, even if you’re indifferent to individual rights arguments. Nonetheless, I’ve largely come to terms with a voting reform movement focusing on the popular half measure, not the unpopular full one. It’s heartening to see people like Schmidt winning without such capitulation.

Also worth reading on this is Nichanian’s own reporting on the practical, non-electoral effects of prisoner voting rights from last November:

I reached out to all the prosecutors in Maine and Vermont to ask for their reaction. I also contacted officials in each state’s Department of Corrections (DOC), the agencies that run state prisons.

Those who answered either defended prison voting as a boon to the criminal legal system, or shrugged it off as a non-issue. None expressed a sense of being disrespected.

“[F]elon voting in Vermont has been a rather uncontroversial topic and is not something that we as prosecutors and law enforcement regularly discuss,” said David Cahill, the state’s attorney of Windsor County, Vermont. An executive at Vermont’s DOC echoed that sentiment. Todd Collins, the district attorney of Maine’s Aroostook County since 2010, replied that he had not given this “any serious consideration before.” 

George was direct when asked about Hawley’s view that Parker’s bill is “insulting.” “That quote is appalling,” she told me via email. “It’s a good reflection of how inhumane our system has become, that we can use language that likens human beings to animals, and imply that once we ‘get them off the street,’ they no longer deserve to be treated with dignity.”

The perception that prisoner voting rights is “radical” or “insulting” to anyone in particular makes little sense in theory and even less in practice.

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