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Sara Bullis fills out her election ballot with her sons, Haden and Harold, on election day in Drummond, Okla.
Crime on the Ballot

The States Where Voters Decided to Give Criminal Justice Reform a Try

From early release to bail reform, reform efforts gain some ground.

Even as Americans ushered in a presidential candidate who favors hard-line law enforcement tactics on Tuesday, voters still passed criminal justice reform measures by comfortable margins in many states.

In California, 64 percent of voters passed Proposition 57. The measure provides those serving time for nonviolent felonies an opportunity for parole and allows them to earn early-release credits for taking educational and rehabilitative programs. It also moves the decision of whether to “waive” a juvenile into adult court — which has, for years, rested with prosecutors alone — into the hands of judges.

Oklahoma voters safeguarded the death penalty but also passed two reform measures aimed at the state’s incarceration rate, the second highest in the nation. SQ 780 reclassifies many felonies as misdemeanors, including personal use amounts of all drugs, and theft of items valued at up to $1,000. A corresponding measure directs the savings generated by these reforms into a fund to pay for mental health and drug treatment. These victories are expected to provide momentum to a state criminal justice reform task force currently crafting a slate of new legislation.

New Mexico passed a constitutional amendment that dictates no one should be held in jail simply because of an inability to post bail, putting the state on the vanguard of bail reform. The amendment also gives state judges the ability to hold without bail anyone deemed too dangerous to release. Previously, defendants in New Mexico — as in most states — had a “right to bail.” “New Mexico voters have affirmed that locking someone up simply because they can’t afford to purchase their freedom is unjust and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, who heads the Pretrial Justice Institute, a bail reform advocacy group.

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A victims’ rights measure crafted in California prevailed in all three states where it was on the ballot. Marsy’s Law passed in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, enshrining more than a dozen new rights for crime victims into those state constitutions and broadly redefining who qualifies as a “victim” in those states. The measure was unpopular with victims’ rights advocates and prosecutors, who argued that it would clog the system and divert resources away from victims of more serious crimes.

Gun control measures passed in California, Nevada, and Washington, three of the four states where they were on the ballot. The California measure, which adds time-of-sale background checks for purchases of bullets to the state’s existing strict background checks for purchases of guns, passed with 63 percent. In Washington state, judges can now temporarily seize guns from people deemed dangerous. In a close race in Nevada, voters voted to extend background checks to online and private gun sales, which were previously unregulated. A similar background check bill — like Nevada’s, supported with major cash infusions by Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — failed to pass in Maine. The state has no permitting or background check requirements to purchase or carry a gun beyond the basic federal check.