In the upcoming midterms, voters in many states will vote on ballot initiatives to reform the criminal justice system: North Dakota votes on marijuana legalization and expunging marijuana-related criminal records, Florida votes on restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions and allowing changes in sentences to apply retroactively to people already convicted. And in Ohio, voters will weigh in on a bundle of reforms that would curtail the war on drugs.
All of these bold initiatives are in states that President Trump won in 2016 — and thus might seem at odds with Trump's "tough-on-crime" rhetoric.
And yet, these ballot initiatives are not a shot in the dark. Polls from Ohio show support to reduce low drug-possession felonies to misdemeanors and bar judges from sending parole violators to state prisons, generating millions of dollars in savings. Similarly, in Florida, a poll shows that 71 percent of voters support restoring voting rights to the 1.6 million Floridians — mostly black — who are currently barred from voting because of a felony conviction.
The efforts in Ohio, Florida, and North Dakota should give hope and inspiration to Pennsylvania — that bold statewide criminal justice reform is worth fighting for.
Not all efforts would translate to Pennsylvania. Unlike Florida, in Pennsylvania people who finished serving their sentences by an election date can vote. Unlike Ohio, simple drug possession is already a misdemeanor and not a felony. But there are issues that the state can and should address.
Completely decriminalize marijuana
While marijuana has been decriminalized in Philadelphia and other localities, possession arrests are extremely prevalent — about 20,000 per year — and impact mainly people of color. According to Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services, an arrest or conviction could prevent a person from gaining employment or an education.
One way to mitigate that harm is record-clearing. In June, Gov. Wolf signed a law that is going to create an automated process instead of the individualized petitions. Dietrich says that Clean Slate "is going to really help most people who have something that could be expunged or sealed on their record taken care of, instead of, like, 10 percent of the people who are eligible."
But a felony can't be sealed or expunged in Pennsylvania, and a marijuana possession arrest can easily become a felony if the prosecutor decides the possession was with intent to distribute — an often arbitrary distinction.
Following North Dakota's lead, Pennsylvania should work toward a complete decriminalization of marijuana that includes an expungement to all marijuana-related offenses — misdemeanors or felonies.
Abolish the death penalty and life without parole
The only possible sentences for first-degree or second-degree murder in Pennsylvania are death or life without the possibility of parole — and that's a problem.
Pennsylvania has more than 5,300 people serving a sentence of life without parole. According to an Abolitionist Law Center report, one-third of lifers are considered "geriatric" and cost the state $86 million every year. The report also shows that black Pennsylvanians are much more likely to be sentenced to life without parole and that more than half of "lifers" were sentenced when they were 25 or younger.
Pennsylvania also has a large death-row population — the fifth-largest in the country — though only three people have been executed in half a century, and there is a moratorium on executions. A Joint State Government Commission report on the death penalty from June found that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is racially biased and in some cases unconstitutional. The report also notes that the death penalty puts large financial strain on the commonwealth. Those costs make little sense given that 88 percent of criminologists don't believe that the death penalty deters crime.
Both the death penalty and life without parole should be abolished.
To move toward abolishing the latter, Sen. Sharif Street proposed a bill in September that will make lifers eligible for parole after 15 years in prison. The bill received support from an unexpected source: the conservative Koch brothers.
Leverage goals of both liberals and conservatives to get it done
A major difference between criminal justice reformers from the left and right is the reason they want reform. Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimum, says that there is a side of conservatism that says "the criminal justice system is another failed big government program." Meanwhile, much of the liberal messaging comes from a racial justice lens.
But these values are not mutually exclusive — mass incarceration is both fiscally inefficient and harmful for communities of color.
For Ring, the starting point is public safety — "the number-one thing to address no matter how your audience votes." After the public safety reason for the reform is established, then, according to Ring, liberals or conservatives value can lead the conversation depending on the audience.
Following Ring's advice: decriminalizing marijuana and expunging records, abolishing the death penalty, and creating a path to parole for lifers doesn't make Pennsylvania any less safe. In fact, it will save money, reduce the size of government, and be an important step toward racial justice. It can also bring us together in a time of growing polarization.