This article is part of Prism’s Election 2020: What’s at Stake coverage.

This year has been a watershed moment that has raised the nation’s awareness and outrage about police violence and the injustices of the criminal legal system. As the country pivots from a whirlwind summer and into the final stretch of a heated election season, voters and spectators are continuing to uplift their concerns around criminal justice. The presidential race has pitted a law and order candidate against a carceral moderate, as demonstrated by their records and recent debate performances. Each presents different challenges to the criminal justice system, but similarly misses the mark in terms of meeting the radical demands of organizers, thought leaders, and engaged citizens on the ground. 

While the presidential election will have serious implications for what our justice system will look like in years to come, this year voters in some states can also find on their ballots initiatives and referenda that will dramatically shift the criminal legal system at the state level, impacting both incarcerated people and those living in the free world. There are a handful of ballot initiatives that will be on this November’s ballots in states across the country that deal explicitly with altering criminal codes and reforming the state’s criminal justice systems. Some, such as those in Utah and Nebraska, will impact prison labor, while those in Oklahoma and Oregon will influence sentencing guidelines. 

  • Utah Constitutional Amendment C and Nebraska Amendment 1: If passed, both amendments will remove clauses frome each state’s constitution that permit slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. 

  • Oklahoma State Question 805: Currently, in Oklahoma if a person is charged with a felony and has one or more prior felony convictions, district attorneys can seek an enhanced sentence that goes beyond the maximum punishment a first-time offender can receive. If passed, district attorneys will lose their ability to seek these sentence enhancements unless the person has been previously charged with a violent felony.

  • Oregon Measure 110: If passed, Oregon would be the first state in the nation to decriminalize the personal possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine. Oregon routinely ranks among the highest in the nation for substance dependence while also having one of the worst records nationwide when it comes to treating people for substance dependence. 

Of all the states considering changes to the criminal legal system this year, California is examining some of the most significant reforms. As the home to the largest jail system in the country and the site of one of the most contentious battles around the cash bail system, California has for years garnered the attention of the entire nation when it comes to criminal justice policy. This year may be no different as Californians will vote on three separate ballot initiatives related to the criminal legal system: Proposition 17, which would restore the right to vote for people convicted of felonies who are on parole, Proposition 25, which would allow the state to continue its efforts to replace cash bail with a pretrial risk assessment system, and Proposition 20. The Proposition 20 initiative stands to make sweeping changes throughout the state and speaks directly to current national conversations around funding the police and corrections departments, and the malleability of how we construct crime. 

The Criminal Sentencing, Parole, and DNA Collection Initiative, or California Proposition 20, aims to amend and roll back parts of Assembly Bill 109, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57—three major criminal justice reform initiatives from 2011, 2014, and 2016, respectively. Proposition 20 would:

  • allow DNA testing for more misdemeanor offenses.

  • add 51 additional offenses to the list of violent felonies for which early parole will be denied.

  • recategorize some theft and fraud misdemeanors into what are known “wobblers,” or offenses that can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies.

  • add two new theft-related crimes to the state’s criminal code. 

Champions of the bill have collectively poured in over $3 million in support. Those supporters include the Republican Party of California, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, Los Angeles Police Protective League, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, and three major retailers: Safeway, Ralph’s and Costco. Proponents argue that there are a slew of crimes such as human trafficking and domestic violence that are currently considered to be nonviolent offenses under California’s criminal code, enabling people to be released from jail or prison early, and—they believe—compromise public safety. Democratic Assemblymember Jim Cooper has spoken in support of the initiative, stating that “the public never had any idea these were not considered serious or violent crimes in the state of California. When they hear it they’re shocked.” 

However, opponents of the initiative argue it will only undermine the immense progress that California has made in decreasing its incarcerated population—a victory that notably hasn’t led to any upticks in crime. These opponents say that not only will the bill raise penalties for low level crimes like petty theft of items valued at $250 or more—which will effectively criminalize the poor at a time when millions of Americans are increasingly being pushed into poverty—but it will also funnel money into law enforcement and away from crucial social services. The No on Prop 20 coalition, a group of bill opponents composed of groups like ACLU California, Californians for Safety and Justice, and the Youth Justice Coalition, note that the bill would cut rehabilitation programs in prison for people nearing release and would also cut funding for mental health programs, schools, health care, and housing programs. Meanwhile, a fiscal analysis by the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that should the Proposition pass it would increase state and local corrections costs by tens of millions of dollars annually and add roughly a few million dollars annually in state and law enforcement costs, primarily due to increased spending on DNA collection tools.

The coalition has called Proposition 20 a “prison spending scam,” and in addition, groups advocating for survivors of violence say that it fails to provide the types of services and programs that people need to heal after facing harm, as reported by The San Francisco Chronicle. At a September press conference about their opposition to the bill, Sophora Acheson, executive director of Ruby’s Place, the nation’s first domestic abuse shelter explained that in the wake of her own abuse. “It provided [a] temporary sense of safety when the person that caused me harm was in jail, but it didn’t change their behavior. Where the healing really came for me … is from the services like counseling, shelter, and case management as well as the rehabilitation services of those who caused harm. It is incredibly disheartening that survivor voices are being exploited to say yes on Prop. 20. That is not the consensus that we hear from folks that we serve as well as myself, personally.”

The No on Prop 20 coalition is continuing to advocate and organize by speaking out against the initiative. They have gained endorsements from editorial boards such as the Los Angeles Times and are calling on voters to reject a bill that they say that seeks to work against broad calls to divest from the carceral system and invest in social services.

Prism is covering what’s at stake in the 2020 elections on the issues that matter most to our communities, including gender justice, immigration, electoral justice, environmental justice, workers’ rights, and racial justice. Dive into the rest of our coverage here.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.