State Advocacy Update: 2014 Midterm Analysis and More

From The Sentencing Project

The midterm election results show there may be an opening at the state level for criminal justice reform. California voters authorized Proposition 47; the measure retroactively reclassifies six low-level felony offenses to misdemeanors. New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment that reformed its bail system. Voters in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia approved recreational use of marijuana. State advocates might look to the recent election cycle for strategies that can help with legislative and public education efforts.

More on the Elections:

While criminal justice reform does not have sure champions on either side of the partisan aisle, an analysis of changes in state legislatures may be helpful. Republicans gained ground in every region of the country and now control 68 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers and hold more than 4,100 of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats. Those closely tracking state legislative races observed that following the 2012 election cycle, the GOP targeted key states and ran sophisticated campaigns to achieve electoral success. Democrats lost significant ground: before the midterms the party controlled both legislative chambers and the governorship in 13 states. Today, Democrats maintain that status in only seven states: Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, California, Oregon and Hawaii. Republicans control the Legislature and the governorship in 23 states.

It might be important to note an increase in legislatures split between the parties or with a legislature of one party and the governor of another. The National Conference of State Legislatures believes this may result in a bipartisan compromise around the politics of state budgets. Broad political support has been an important strategy in Arkansas and Missouri among other states.

Helpful Campaign Strategies

It is too early to know the impact of Proposition 47, but advocates in other states may be looking at a similar law change to reduce reliance on incarceration. In addition to the substance of the policy, taking note of campaign strategies may be helpful too. While significant resources were targeted to the ballot measure, the initiative was anchored by Californians for Safety & Justice (CSJ) through a coordinated field and communications strategy that included earned media attention and editorials on the need to go deeper on criminal justice reform. CSJ worked closely with law enforcement champions like George Gascón, San Francisco District Attorney, and William Lansdowne, former San Diego Police Chief. Conservative thought leader Newt Gingrich also weighed in with public support. The measure was supported by a coalition of interest groups including the AFL-CIO, Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, and PICO California. Coalition partners with membership bases assisted with “get out the vote” strategies. The campaign also worked to amplify the voices of crime survivors who supported public safety strategies beyond incarceration.

Reducing the Prison Population

Consensus is emerging to call for significant prison population reductions in a comprehensive strategy. Recently, efforts targeted at reducing the nation’s prison population by fifty percent may help build support towards meaningful changes in policy and practice for persons convicted of serious offenses. JustLeadership USA launched a campaign to cut the nation’s prison population in half by 2030. National thought leaders Van Jones and Newt Gingrich have made similar suggestions. Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it will work to meet the challenge of cutting the nation’s prison population in half by 2020. There may be lessons to learn from WISDOM’s 11×15 faith-based campaign in Wisconsin that has a similar population reduction goal. State advocates interested in the practicality of such a strategy might find this “Science of Prison Downsizing Prisons – What Works?” factsheet helpful.

Other News

  • Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe announced he will pardon his son for a felony drug conviction. The Democrat has pardoned 700 people since his election in 2007 and recently announced his intent to pardon an additional 25 individuals convicted of various crimes.
  • Also in Arkansas, lawmakers recently met in the Joint Committee of State Agencies and Governmental Affairs to discuss solutions to the state’s crowded prisons.
  • Maryland’s incoming Republican governor – Larry Hogan – stated he would seek help from former Governor Robert Ehrlich on ways to use pardon and clemency power more.
  • In Texas, activists organized the Texas Families for Justice rally, to demonstrate the politics of recognition among impacted individuals and call for reforms.

Tips? Feedback? Email Nicole D. Porter, Director of Advocacy, at