NEW YORK – Almost six months after the death of George Floyd, criminal justice reform advocates are cheering the election of a handful of progressive prosecutors, the passage of ballot initiatives designed to ease mass incarceration and the decriminalization of drugs in several states.
Voters also sent Black Lives Matter activists to Congress, restored voting rights to former prisoners and scored other gains sought by the protests that filled American streets last summer. Leaders in the movement want to build on those successes in 2021.
The aim was to “build a multiracial coalition that could translate the movement power we saw in the streets into electoral might. And it worked,” said Maurice Mitchell, a Movement for Black Lives strategist and national director of the Working Families Party.
The 2020 results were not all victories, however. Reformers also saw setbacks, including a blow to the movement to defund local police departments. Rep. James Clyburn, the House majority whip from South Carolina, and other Democrats blamed the defunding rhetoric for the party’s surprise loss of seats in the House. Clyburn warned that the idea could harm the larger BLM movement.
Going into Election Day, most Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, rejected the idea of reducing police budgets to answer for systemic racism in the justice system.
The protests sparked by Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May thrust the defunding demand before city councils, including those in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and New York City. But defunding appears to be unpopular when voters hear it discussed in abstract, said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College in New York and author of “The End of Policing.”
“In a whole bunch of places, when people were able to vote on something concrete, it turned out they were in favor of defunding the police, but just not in those terms,” Vitale said. He pointed to a ballot measure in Los Angeles County that reallocates money to services to keep people out of jail.
Measure J, which was approved by nearly 57% of voters in Los Angeles, requires at least 10% of the county’s budget to be earmarked for community investments and alternatives to incarceration, such as addiction treatment and other pretrial services.