Health and Justice Reforms on the Ballot: 2018 Midterm Election Results

(Chicago) – Several criminal justice initiatives advanced during the 2018 midterm elections, marking notable progress in justice reform.

In Florida, for example, voters approved Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to people—1.4 million—who have completed serving the terms of their sentences, including probation and parole, for most felony offenses. Florida voters also approved Amendment 11, which allows the state’s legislature to enact sentencing reforms that apply retroactively.

In Colorado, voters approved a ballot measure which removes language from the state Constitution that allows slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as punishment for crime. And in Louisiana, voters approved a constitutional change requiring unanimous juries for all felony convictions, which means that Oregon will soon be the only remaining state that allows juries that aren’t unanimous to send people to prison.

Medicaid expansion was also on the ballot in multiple states. Voters in Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska supported measures to expand Medicaid, meaning 36 states, plus the District of Columbia, have now adopted Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Several groups have published overviews of justice- and health-related results from the elections:

While the advancement of these justice reform initiatives is encouraging, there is more to be done.

“We are still far from the finish line in achieving comprehensive justice reform, but these are promising advances,” said TASC President Pam Rodriguez.

For example, a recent investigative report critiques for-profit diversion programs in Illinois. Diversion programs are intended to divert eligible individuals who would have otherwise been arrested, charged, or incarcerated, away from the justice system and into appropriate community-based mental health or substance use treatment. However, without careful oversight, safeguards, and appropriate parameters, programs can have negative consequences.

“When programs with the stated purpose of diverting people away from the system actually draw more people into it, that’s ‘net widening,’” said Rodriguez. “This can occur, for instance, when people whose cases would have eventually been dropped are instead placed under community supervision as part of a ‘diversion’ program. But they may be charged large and unwarranted participation fees, and when they predictably fail to pay, they may be sent to jail or prison as a penalty. Obviously, scenarios like this run absolutely counter to the purpose of diversion programs.”

In a recent opinion piece, author and columnist Michelle Alexander also urged caution, writing that many current justice reforms “contain the seeds of the next generation of racial and social control,” including an increasing reliance on electronic monitoring.

“We must be thoughtful and purposeful in our reform efforts, and vigilant in guarding against unintended consequences and addressing entrenched disparities,” said Rodriguez. “Voter support for justice reforms and Medicaid expansion should serve as a catalyst in the continued pursuit of healthier and more just communities.”

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