By Christopher Zoukis
The November 6 elections turned control of the House of Representatives over to the Democrats, mildly strengthened Republican command of the Senate, and reshaped state executives and legislatures in various ways. Less visible, but also important were the voter ballot initiatives were opted to revise state laws, including some criminal laws and procedures in multiple ways.
The most visible change was Florida voters’ decision to end the state’s automatic lifetime ban on voting by state residents who had been convicted of a felony, even after they had fully served out their sentences. But that was far from the only notable issue in the realm of criminal justice considered by state voters. Here’s a brief roundup of some others:
Non-unanimous jury verdicts: Voters in Louisiana decided to require unanimous state jury verdicts to convict on felonies, changing a law which had allowed convictions when 10 of 12 jurors agreed. That leaves Oregon as the only state in the nation to enable non-unanimous jury convictions in its criminal cases.
Amending criminal laws: Besides repealing the lifetime ban on felons voting, Florida voters approved another state constitutional amendment which repeals a provision preventing state legislators from changing criminal statutes retroactively. A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, a major backer, called it an “incredibly important win,” since it removes a barrier to sentencing reform measures that would reduce mandatory minimum laws and apply the change to those currently serving sentences.
Victims’ rights: In six states (Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, and Oklahoma), voters approved a measure increasing crime victims’ rights. Known as “Marsy’s Law,” it’s named for Marsalee Nicholas, who was shot to death by a former boyfriend in Malibu in 1983. She was the sister of billionaire Henry Nicholas III, a co-founder of semiconductor maker Broadcom; he has spent over $25 million in his campaign to expand victims’ rights by requiring law enforcers to locate victims and allow them to testify at court hearings. Six other states had already adopted versions of the measure, although some prosecutors have complained the law imposes new burdens on them.
Marijuana: Michigan voters backed legalizing recreational use of marijuana, becoming the tenth state to do so, while North Dakota voters rejected a similar proposal. Medical marijuana was approved in Missouri and Utah, which means that over half of the states now do so.
Lowering drug crime penalties: Ohio voters failed to approve a hotly contested ballot proposal to reduce penalties for less serious drug offenses. The proposal (Issue 1) was heavily backed by activists like the American Civil Liberties Union, and multi-millionaires George Soros and Tom Steyer, and opposed by state Republicans.
Designed to cut the numbers of persons in state prisons for such non-violent crimes as drug possession or non-criminal probation violations, the initiative would have dropped those offenses to misdemeanors, with no sentence stricter than probation for a first or second offense.
Police training: An initiative passed by Washington State voters will mandate training for police officers in mental health and de-escalation methods, aiming to reduce police-involved shootings.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.