Skip to main content

Californians Vote for Criminal Legal System Reform

Voters Support Efforts to Reduce Incarceration, Reimagine Public Safety

California State Prison, Centinela in Imperial County, California. © Rich LaSalle/Getty Images

During last week’s elections in the United States, Californians strongly supported reforming the state’s criminal legal system.

In the Los Angeles County district attorney race, voters denied incumbent Jackie Lacey a third term, instead electing a candidate who promised never to seek the death penalty or to try children as adults, among other reforms. This vote followed years of protests against Lacey by Black Lives Matter-LA and partners, calling for police accountability and ending discriminatory prosecutorial practices. Nithya Raman won a seat on the Los Angeles city council, running on a platform that emphasized decriminalization of “crimes of poverty,” redirecting  police funding to enhance public safety, and providing social services and affordable housing. Supported by an army of progressive volunteers, Raman, an urban planner with no elected experience, became the first person to unseat an incumbent city council member in 17 years. A majority of Los Angeles County voters approved Measure J, directing substantial funds to community-based services, including alternatives to incarceration and health care, instead of to law enforcement.

By a wide margin, voters rejected Proposition 20,  which would have prevented people convicted of certain offenses from seeking early parole, increased penalties for repeat thefts, hardened parole standards, and expanded DNA collection. Law enforcement had intended Proposition 20 to roll back recent reforms of the criminal legal system that have substantially reduced prison populations. Californians passed Proposition 17, ending voting rights bans for people on parole.

Voters rejected the illusory pretrial reform offered in Proposition 25. A “yes” vote would have ended money bail, a long-time goal of reformers, but replace it with a system relying on racially biased algorithms to make or inform incarceration decisions. It would have empowered judges to impose preventive detention—pretrial incarceration with no chance of release—with nearly unlimited discretion, and expanded probation departments to supervise people merely accused of crimes.

Though the bail bond industry placed Proposition 25 on the ballot,  a grassroots campaign led by community organizations, formerly incarcerated people, racial justice, civil, and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, defense attorneys, and others, sounded the alarm over its dangers, advocating instead for a fairer way to end money bail, without risk assessments or increased incarceration or probation.

Along with the other reform victories, Proposition 25’s defeat signals the growing grassroots power of the legal reform movement in California. Now, advocates and organizers continue the work of crafting pretrial reforms that are grounded in respect for human rights for all.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country