A confluence of factors could make 2019 the most meaningful year yet for criminal justice reform.
While politicians seldom make it a priority to rein in the drug war, reduce prison populations or empower the rehabilitated, Americans have a clear and growing appetite for these things. They said so with their ballots last week in several important state and local ballot referendums.
As a few examples, Florida voted to restore felons’ voting rights, Michigan will become the next state to legalize marijuana and Colorado amended its state constitution to outlaw uncompensated prison labor. Lyon County, Nevada overwhelmingly favored keeping their brothel system place, one of the first voter referendums on legal prostitution.
The message is clear. Voters are choosing freedom.
At the federal level, with Democrats taking control of the U.S. House and Republicans holding the Senate, legislators will be forced to seek bipartisan compromises. The incoming class of Democrats, younger and more racially diverse than the incumbents, will encounter a growing group of traditionalist Republicans who finally are warming up to criminal justice reform.
Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has long advocated for sentencing reform. President Donald Trump, prodded by senior adviser Jared Kushner and pop culture icon Kim Kardashian, now appears to favor more compassionate laws. They should work together on a huge reform package and deliver Trump the major legislative victory he badly needs.
Jeff Sessions, this century’s biggest obstacle to reform, is out as attorney general. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, often in the way of meaningful progress, is fighting to ease restrictions on hemp. That’s not technically a criminal justice issue, but it helps to normalize cannabis reform as a conservative policy position.
There also is hope here in Iowa, partly because policymakers’ hands will be tied - our prison system is 24 percent over capacity, and many of our local law enforcement agencies and county jails are similarly stretched thin. We literally can’t afford to have this many criminals.
Marijuana decriminalization won’t solve the overcrowding problem, but it’s a starting place. A bill to reduce charges for first-time marijuana possession won unanimous bipartisan support in an Iowa Senate committee last year, but it never saw a floor vote. Analysts expect such a bill would keep as many as 2,000 Iowans each year out of the corrections system. It should be an easy political victory for Republicans and Democrats.
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Gov. Kim Reynolds, elected to her first full term in office last week, has a chance to make good on a promise she made to Iowans months ago, during her first Condition of the State. She spoke about how addiction is personal to her and her family, and envisioned Iowa as a place where “if you’ve made mistakes, you can find a second chance.”
Reynolds has the authority to unilaterally and automatically restore voting rights of felons who have done their time, as it is in most states. She can do it today if she wants. That would be a good start for second chances.
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