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Blue states tackle criminal justice reform by legalizing marijuana and ending cash bail

Monday brought big wins for criminal justice reform in three Democratic-controlled states.

By Emily Singer - February 22, 2021
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker

Criminal justice reform advocates notched three major victories on Monday, as New Jersey legalized marijuana, Virginia abolished the death penalty, and Illinois eliminated cash bail in a sweeping police accountability bill.

All three policies get to the heart of progressives’ goals of fixing the broken justice system in the United States — which has incarcerated Black and brown people at higher rates and helped lead to economic inequality across the country.

In fact, all three policies are key agenda items for the Sentencing Project, an organization that wants to end mass incarceration in the United States. The Sentencing Project said in a 2018 report to the United Nations that America’s unequal criminal justice system has led to a situation where, “As of 2001, one of every three black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as could one of every six Latinos — compared to one of every seventeen white boys.”

For example, marijuana laws have disproportionally been enforced against Black and brown communities, with the American Civil Liberties Union reporting that “between 2001 and 2010, a Black person was almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person was, despite approximately equal rates of use.”

It’s why Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) praised New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) for signing a trio of bills on Monday that legalize marijuana use in the state, decriminalize possession of the drug, and provide relief to those who have been arrested for marijuana possession in the past.

“Marijuana will now be legal in NJ. We’re one step closer to ending this unjust, failed war on drugs that has systematically targeted Black & Brown people & the poor across our state & nation,” Booker tweeted.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s Legislature passed a law ending the use of the death penalty in the state, with the bill heading to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

It’s a major step for Virginia, which has executed more people than any other state in the country.

“With final passage in the Virginia House and Senate, our Commonwealth will soon join 22 states in abolishing the death penalty—an important step in ensuring our criminal justice system is fair and equitable,” Northam said in a statement of the death penalty abolition.

Lastly, Illinois’ Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker signed a criminal justice and police reform bill into law that ends cash bail and implements new police training policies that focus on deescalation.

Cash bail is a policy that also disproportionally targets people of color, who cannot afford bail to await trial outside of prison.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 70% of the jail population are pretrial detainees, many of whom are there simply because they cannot afford the bail amount set by judges.

According to the Brennan Center, “Pretrial detention has dramatically negative effects on the outcome of a defendant’s case: those who are held pretrial are four times more likely to be sentenced to prison than defendants released prior to trial. Pretrial detainees are also likely to make hurried decisions to plead guilty to a lower charge to spend less time behind bars rather than chancing a higher charge and longer sentence at trial.”

State legislative races are often overlooked as voters pay more attention to presidential contests or other marquee statewide elections.

But a lot of important policy that directly impacts daily life is passed at the state legislative level, and the laws coming out of states controlled by either party show the ramifications of that.

For example, as Democratic-run states focus on criminal justice reform and voting rights, GOP-run states have been introducing bills that seek to make it harder to vote, as well as legislation targeting transgender youth.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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