Midterm elections: what they tell us about shifting attitudes for criminal justice reform

December 26, 2022
One of the biggest takeaways from the midterm elections is the growing support for criminal justice reform. The 2022 midterms saw unprecedented bi-partisan support across the United States. Here are some highlights of what happened.

1. Removal of slavery as a punishment for crime

It might sound outdated, but slavery as a punishment for a crime is still legal in some states. The use of slavery as a punishment for crime was abolished in four states: Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont. Until now, these states had laws that allowed incarcerated people to work for low or no pay and to be threatened with punishment if they refused. This reform will allow incarcerated people to receive fair compensation for their work, which can help them reintegrate into society and reduce the risk of recidivism.

One of the largest issues with the current justice system is the high probability of recidivism (reoffending). This is often due to the lack of resources that incarcerated people have. Without the necessary skills to get a job or money to live on while finding a job, formerly incarcerated people often end up reoffending or living on the streets. If incarcerated people can earn more money, they will be much better off when reentering society.

Removing slavery as punishment is one of the first steps to rectifying this. Even after the midterms, there are still 15 states that explicitly permit slavery. However, important steps are being made across the board.

2. More states continue to decriminalize/legalize drugs

A large and growing amount of states have legalized cannabis, with it now being legal in 21 states. Public support for legalization continues to increase, with nearly 60% of adults saying that it should be legal for both medical and recreational use.

The decriminalization of drugs is a key battle for justice reform. By decreasing punishments for substance charges, government spending can decrease and additional tax revenue can be generated. This frees up budgets for public schools, mental health services, or treatment services for substance use.

Support has also been found in typically conservative states, including New Mexico, Alaska, Montana, Virginia, Maine, and Arizona. All of these states legalized marijuana. While similar bills were shot down in other states, this is a good sign for the future. On the other side of the political spectrum, Colorado continues to lead the way in ending the war on drugs by decriminalizing the use of some psychedelic drugs.

One huge victory to point out is in Missouri. Missouri made significant progress on drug reform by not only legalizing marijuana but also passing measures to expunge nonviolent drug offenses from the records of thousands of people. An estimated 20,000 people are arrested every year in Missouri for minor marijuana charges, and this reform will help clear their records and reduce the impact of these charges on their lives.

3. Election of justice reform supporters

This isn’t the most eye-popping news but this could have one of the largest impacts on justice reform going forward. Mary Moriarty, a former public defender, was elected as a prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, experienced a high volume of protests in 2020. Mary Moriarty ran on a promise of police accountability and won with 58% of the vote.

Similar stories were on display across the country. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that candidates who were ‘tough on crime’ were not very successful. This signals a shift in public attitudes towards crime and justice, with a rejection of the “tough on crime” rhetoric that has dominated in the past.

Nucleos’s thoughts

At Nucleos, we’re encouraged and excited about the movement in justice reform from the midterm elections. Justice reform was on the ballot and many positive changes were made. One key aspect we wish to see change is access to resources to reduce recidivism (reoffending). We believe that access to learning and training opportunities is an important part of criminal justice reform. By providing incarcerated people with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed upon release, we can help reduce the risk of recidivism and improve outcomes for individuals and society as a whole.

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