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Marijuana Scores Some Big Wins on Election Day

The federal government may still label marijuana as a prohibited drug, but state prohibitions continue to fall.


Voters in four states decided on ballot measures concerning marijuana. In three of those states, pro-pot advocates came out victorious.


The biggest win for marijuana backers was in Michigan. Voters in that state approved the recreational use of marijuana. With the passage of this measure, Michiganders who are over 21 can possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and cultivate up to 12 plants for their own consumption. The sale of marijuana is also permitted. Michigan joins 9 other states and the District of Columbia in permitting recreational marijuana use.


Voters in Missouri and Utah approved medical marijuana measures. In Missouri, voters chose from three competing proposals to legalize and tax the medicinal use of marijuana. They approved the one that had the lowest tax rate and that would fund veteran services. In Utah, the governor and legislators had agreed to convene a special session to deal with medical marijuana legislation regardless of what voters decided.


North Dakota voters bucked the trend by rejecting that state’s ballot initiative that would have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. That measure garnered the support of only 41% of voters.


Earlier this year, Oklahoma voters approved a medical marijuana initiative.


Do you support legalizing marijuana for recreational use?

Washington Court Prohibits Use of the Death Penalty

Today the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state’s death penalty violated the Washington constitution.


In a unanimous ruling the justices held that the death penalty is arbitrarily and disproportionately applied. The court concluded that the way in which the state used the death penalty violated the state constitutional guarantees.


There were eight people on Washington’s death row who were affected by this ruling. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison without parole. The case was brought by one of these inmates, Allen Gregory, who was sentenced to death for robbing and killing a woman in 1996.


Governor Jay Inslee had imposed a moratorium on the death penalty’s use in 2014, saying he would never permit an execution while he was governor. He hailed the decision as important for the fair application of justice. There have been legislative attempts to abolish capital punishment, but they have never made it all the way through both houses of the legislature.


The court did not say that capital punishment itself was unconstitutional, but did hold how it was currently applied in the state was unlawful. The legislature could reform the state’s laws in an attempt to meet the objections made by the court’s justices. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would ask the legislature to rewrite the state’s law governing capital punishment.


With this ruling, Washington joins 19 other states in prohibiting the death penalty.

Do you think the death penalty should be abolished?

Ohio Voters Could Reduce Drug Penalties

The purchase and possession of illegal drugs in Ohio may soon be a misdemeanor in Ohio if Issue 1 becomes law. Its passage would reduce drug crime penalties and take other steps that would shrink the state’s prison population.


Under Issue 1, the uses, possession, or obtainment of any illegal drug could not be classified as a felony. Sentences for a first or second offense could not be anything harsher than probation. It would not change the penalties for the sale or distribution of drugs, however. The measure would also prohibit the revocation of probation for non-violent offenses. In addition, Issue 1 would require that inmates in work, rehabilitation, or educational programs receive a half-day reduction in their sentence for every day they participate.


Supporters of this ballot measure say that non-violent offenders should not be in prison. They argue that it will save the state millions of dollars if these offenders are not put in jail and would lead to better outcomes for those caught up in the criminal justice system. Law enforcement groups have come out strongly against Issue 1, saying it undercuts the authority of police and prosecutors to punish crime. They argue that not only will Issue 1 make the public less safe, it will send the wrong message about drug use to children.


The Democratic candidate for governor, Richard Cordray, supports Issue 1, while his Republican opponent, Mike DeWine, opposes it.


Do you think that the possession and use of drugs should be a felony? Or should states relax punishments for drug possession?

New York City Makes Jail Calls Free


When inmates call family or friends from jail, it can be costly. In New York City, however, inmates may soon be able to do something unprecedented – make jailhouse calls for free.


Prior to legislation recently passed by the city council, in-state calls from New York City jails cost 5 cents a minute, while out-of-state calls cost 21 cents a minute. The company that provided phone services only allowed prisoners to put $50 on an account at one time, with a $3 fee every time that account received more money.


With many people in jail because they cannot find money to pay bail, these fees and charges added up. This led to a movement by prisoners and their families to either reduce the amount being charged or make the calls free.


New York City Council members initially supported a bill that would end the city’s ability to profit off of the telecommunication services. Advocates pressed them to end charges completely for the calls, which is what the city council eventually passed in mid-summer.


Those who support this measure say that high charges and fees for calls are unfair for struggling families. They contend that the private companies running these services are making huge profits off of a population that has no choice but to pay their extremely high charges. Opponents of the measure counter that these services come with a cost, and it is only right for prisoners and their families to pay for them.


With an end to charges on jail calls in New York, there are now efforts in other cities to do the same.


Do you think that it is fair to charge prisoners high fees for jailhouse calls? Should jailhouse calls be free?


Colorado Voters Set to Vote on Banning Prison Slavery


The constitutions of both Colorado and the United States ban slavery and involuntary servitude, but they contain one exception – those who are being punished for a crime can still be forced to work without pay. This year, Colorado voters will face a ballot amendment that would end this practice in that state.


Under Colorado’s constitution, if someone has been convicted of a crime it is legal for the state to put that person to work without paying him or her. Half the states allow such unpaid labor for convicts, while the other half ban it.


Legislators voted to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would, if passed, ban slavery and involuntary servitude completely in Colorado. They placed an identical amendment on the ballot in 2016, but voters narrowly defeated it.


Supporters of this amendment say that the current language allowing prisoners to be forced to do unpaid work is a relic from another time when the dignity of all people was not recognized. They say it will be a positive symbolic change for Colorado to ban slavery in all cases. Opponents of changing the language note that prisons offer a variety of work programs that are aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. They say that amending the constitution may affect the legal status of these programs.


Do you think that prisoners should be forced to work without pay? Or do prison laborers deserve to be paid for their labor?


Illinois Governor Wants to Revive Death Penalty


It has been 18 years since Illinois stopped executing prisoners on death row. If Governor Bruce Rauner gets his way, however, the death penalty will once again become part of the state’s criminal justice system.


Under a proposal floated by Gov. Rauner, prosecutors could seek a death sentence for someone who commits mass murder or murders a police office. He said imposing this ultimate penalty is necessary to protect public safety.


Illinois formally repealed the death penalty in 2011. This followed a moratorium put in place in 2000 by then-Governor George Ryan. This moratorium lasted for ten years and was established in response to a series of questionable prosecutions and the exoneration a death row prisoner.


Gov. Rauner says that there will be safeguards put in place to guard against wrongful convictions and inconsistent application of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment say that regardless of the precautions taken by the state, there is always that chance that an innocent person could be convicted and executed.


Reinstatement of the death penalty must be approved by the legislature. With Democrats in charge of both houses of the legislative branch, it is unlikely that the governor’s idea will be enacted.


Do you think that Illinois should bring back the death penalty for someone who murders a police officer or commits mass murder?


Michigan Making it More Difficult for Government to Seize Assets


In Michigan, as in many other states, if police think you are involved in a drug crime, they can take your money and your property. They do not have to prove that you are dealing or even using drugs; the mere suspicion of involvement is all that it is required to seize your assets. Legislators are on the verge of ending law enforcement’s power to do this.


Under civil asset forfeiture, police agencies have broad power to seize and keep property from suspected criminals. Even if there is no conviction for a crime, this property can still be legally kept by the state. Individuals who owned that property can fight to get it back, but the legal barriers are high and such a fight is costly and time-consuming.


The Michigan House of Representatives voted to reform this practice in mid-May. Under legislation that passed that chamber, any property valued at $50,000 or less could only be forfeited to the state if there is a criminal conviction, a plea agreement, or if the owner relinquishes the property to the state.


Law enforcement groups testified against this legislation during its consideration. They said that civil asset forfeiture is necessary to combat drug trafficking, depriving dealers of the proceeds of their crime. They also said that the money from forfeiture helps fund law enforcement, so limiting the practice will deprive them of money that they need.


Opponents of civil asset forfeiture point out that if drug dealers are convicted of crimes, then their property can still be seized. They say that there are many instances where law enforcement takes someone’s property, but never charges or convicts that person of a crime. Those who pushed for reform say that the government should not be able to confiscate someone’s property without convicting that person of a crime, and then force the person to go through a lengthy and costly process to get the property back.


This bill will now be considered by the state Senate.


Do you think that the government should be able to take someone’s property if they are only suspected of a crime but never convicted or even charged with one?


California May Restrict Police Use of Deadly Force


The issue of police shootings has been a topic of heated debate in recent years. From 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri to the shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento last month, many are questioning the standard under which police officers can legally kill someone. In response to these incidents, a handful of California legislators want to make it more difficult for law enforcement to use lethal force.


Currently, police operate under the standard of “reasonable use” of deadly force. That is, prosecutors ask whether police acted reasonably when they killed someone whom they perceived to be threatening them. Critics of this standard contend that it gives police broad discretion to use lethal force, with few officers found to be acting “unreasonably.”


California legislators have introduced a bill that would change this standard. If this bill becomes law, it would allow police to use deadly force only when necessary and there is no other way to prevent injury. Under this standard, police would have to use de-escalation tactics prior to shooting at someone.


This proposal is not the only bill that would reform the way law enforcement operates in California. Other bills would allow more public access to police personnel records. Under the state’s Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, these records are tightly sealed. Under a bill that is being considered, the public would have access to records involving use-of-force, sexual assault, and lying on duty.


Police unions in the state have been successful in convincing legislators to defeat bills that would have changed the laws governing their activities in the past. They argue that such bills would hamper their ability to protect the public.  


Given that past bills to change law enforcement procedures have not been successful in California, many are predicting that this legislation will fail in the legislature, too. However, there is increasing public scrutiny over police shootings in the state in the wake of the killing of Clark, who was unarmed and whom family say was shot in the back. Governor Jerry Brown has not indicated his support of or opposition to these bills.


Do you think that it should be more difficult for police to use deadly force on a suspect? Or would new restrictions on police use-of-force hurt efforts to fight crime?



New Hampshire Governor, Legislators Differ on Parole


New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu does not issue many vetoes. In fact, until this month, he only used his veto authority one time. But the governor’s opposition to a bill that would loosen the state’s parole rules has resulted in the second veto of his term.


Current New Hampshire law requires that parolees who violate their terms must return to prison for 90 days if they were convicted of a sex crime, a violent crime, or if their violation was related to the crime for which they were convicted. Any parolees who violate parole more than once are automatically returned to prison for 90 days.


Legislators passed a bill that would give the state parole board discretion to waive this penalty if a parole violator completes a substance abuse program. Law enforcement groups testified against it, contending that parole violators could use drug abuse as an excuse to get out of returning to prison. Supporters of the bill said that it would help provide people with the help they need so they would not re-offend once they were let out of prison.


Governor Sununu said that he supports efforts to keep people from returning to prison, but that this bill went too far. He also pointed out that there are drug treatment programs in prison for those who need them.

Legislators were unable to muster enough votes to override the governor’s first veto last year. It is unclear if they will have the support to do so this time. The legislation was approved by a voice vote in each chamber this year, so it is difficult to determine how strong support for it is in the legislature.


Do you think that parole violators should be automatically returned to prison for 90 days? Or should the parole board have discretion to reduce the punishment for parole violators who complete drug treatment?



Massachusetts May Pass Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform


How Massachusetts prosecutes crime and punishes criminals may undergo a massive overhaul under legislation being considered in the commonwealth. Legislators recently unveiled a bill that would make numerous changes to the criminal code. If enacted, this would be the most comprehensive criminal justice reform for the state in decades.


Among other things, this legislation would:

  • Decriminalize some minor offenses, such as being in the presence of heroin, and allow prosecutors more discretion in using diversion instead of punishment for other minor offenses
  • Mandate that judges must consider the financial capacity of defendants when setting bail
  • Eliminate a variety of mandatory minimum sentences related to non-opioid drug offenses
  • Increase the mandatory minimum sentences for opioid trafficking
  • Increase penalties for intimidating witnesses
  • Reduce the use of solitary confinement in prisons
  • Allow the release of prisoners who are incapacitated and do not pose a public safety risk
  • Reduce fees imposed on defendants
  • Increase privacy protections for criminal records
  • Raise age of juvenile criminal jurisdiction from 7 years of age to 12 years of age
  • House 18-24 year-olds separately in prison from other inmates
  • Prevent parents and children from testifying against each other for most crimes
  • Provide stronger oversight of crime labs


The bill’s supporters say that this is a long-overdue reform that would make the criminal justice system fairer and reduce its impact on people in poverty and minorities. However, some of the provisions in the legislation are strongly opposed by prosecutors. One of the provisions that is most troubling to this group is the prohibition on parents testifying against their minor children. Supporters of that idea say it is a way to prevent families from being torn apart, but prosecutors contend that it would prevent testimony necessary for convictions. Another provision disliked by prosecutors is ending juvenile court jurisdiction for children ages 7 to 11, effectively meaning that there would be no criminal penalties for crimes committed by children in this age group.


The legislation is a compromise version of House and Senate bills. It must be passed by an up-or-down vote in both chambers with no amendments allowed. With Democrats controlling both chambers, it is expected to pass. Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has not indicated whether he would sign it or not.


Do you think support reforming laws to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and reduce fees on defendants? Do you think that lightening criminal laws will lead to more crime?



Death Penalty Continues to Be Contentious


In early April, Virginia authorities executed William Morva for the crime of killing a sheriff’s deputy and a hospital security guard. The state’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, declined to commute the sentence.


In August, Florida is set to resume using the death penalty after an 18-month hiatus. The state Supreme Court had put executions on hold during that time in light of a federal Supreme Court decision. Republican Gov. Rick Scott also stripped Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala of the power to prosecute murder cases because she said that she would never seek the death penalty.


John Kasich, Ohio’s Republican governor, has scheduled 27 executions through 2021.


A federal judge in June accepted changes to Arizona’s execution procedure, such as ban on using some drugs. This settles a case brought by prisoners contending that the way Arizona carried out he death penalty caused too much suffering.


These activities across the states show that both Democratic and Republican governors continue to enforce the death penalty, but there is also a push to curtail – or even ban – its use.


Death penalty opponents point to the frequency of wrongful convictions. They contend that the chances are simply too high that an innocent person has been, or will be, put to death. Those pushing for abolition also contend that the practice is barbaric, with those being executed suffering too much.


There are still many Americans who support the death penalty, however. They see some crimes as deserving the ultimate punishment.


While numbers are hard to determine precisely, there is evidence that the death penalty is becoming more unpopular in America. However, when voters faced state ballot propositions in 2016, they affirmed its use in Oklahoma and California.


Do you support the continued use of the death penalty? Or do you think it’s time that the U.S. stops enforcing this type of punishment?


Colorado Senate Bill 021


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Colorado Senate Bill 021, Use Marijuana Revenue to Subsidize Housing and Services for Mentally Ill Criminals: Passed 35 to 0 in the state Senate on May 10, 2017.


To establish a rental housing voucher and supportive services program for released prisoners who have a behavioral or mental health disorder. The money would come from marijuana tax revenue.


Comment below to share what you think of Colorado Senate Bill 021!



Wisconsin Senate Bill 58


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Senate Bill 58, Make Carjacking a Specific Crime: Passed 26 to 7 in the state Senate on June 14, 2017.


To create the new criminal offense of using force to take a vehicle without the consent of the owner. This crime could be punished by up to 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.


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West Virginia Senate Bill 2006


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West Virginia Bill 2006, Expand Penalties for Violation of the Whistleblower Act: Passed 98 to 0 in the state House on February 15, 2017. 


To increase maximum fines for employers from $500 to $5000, and in the case of public employers, to create a process to remove a person from public office if they are found to have violated protections in state law for "whistle blowers."


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Michigan House Bill 4213


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House Bill 4213, Require Court Order to Breathalyze Minor Who Says No: Passed 37 to 0 in the state Senate on June 22, 2017. 


To establish that a police officer must get a court order to get a breath test for alcohol from a minor who objects. This is not related to drunk driving or vehicles, but to enforcement of a state law that bans minors from being in possession of alcohol. Recent court cases have suggested that doing this without a court order is unconstitutional.


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Florida House Bill 1385


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House Bill 1385, Increase Domestic Violence Penalties: Passed 37 to 0 in the state Senate on May 5, 2017.


To increase mandatory jail time for guilty domestic violence offenders if they intentionally caused bodily harm or if the violence was committed in the presence of a child 16 years old or younger. This bill requires offenders to attend and complete a 29-week batterer’s intervention program.


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Michigan House Bill 4427


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House Bill 4427, Regulate Access to Police Body Camera Images: Passed 37 to 0 in the state Senate on June 22, 2017.


To establish that police body camera recordings taken in a private place are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Individuals whose image is captured, owners of property seized or damaged in a crime and some others could still request a copy of the recordings subject to privacy exemptions. Police body camera recordings would have to be kept for at least 30 days, or longer if there is an related investigation.


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Colorado House Bill 1288


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House Bill 1288, Create Mandatory Jail Terms for Certain DUI Offenders: Passed 34 to 0 in the state House on May 1, 2017. 


Under current law, a person who commits a fourth or subsequent DUI offense commits a class 4 felony. If a court sentences the person to probation, the bill requires the court to order as a condition of probation one of two possible punishments: The offender would be required to serve between 90 and 180 days in a county jail, or between 120 days and two years in a county jail under alternative sentencing programs that allow the offender to be imprisoned only for certain purposes. The bill further requires that the offender be required to complete all of the following: between 48 and 120 hours of community service, an alcohol and drug driving safety education program at the offender’s expense, and possibly other conditions of probation.


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Pennsylvania Senate Bill 172


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Senate Bill 172, Allow Speed Cameras in Some Work Areas: Passed 45 to 3 in the state Senate on 10 July, 2017. 


To allow the use of speed cameras in areas where workers are located on the roadway or shoulder areas of a limited-access highway. Anyone who is caught on a speed camera going at least 11 miles an hour over the speed limit would receive a fine of $100.


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Nevada Senate Bill 153


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Senate Bill 153, Limit the Presumption That Certain Diseases in Police and Firefighters are Work-Related: Passed 36 to 6 in the state Assembly on May 22, 2017.


To limit the presumption that heart and lung diseases contracted by police and firefighters are work-related for the purposes of industrial insurance and disability benefits. Under current law, these diseases are presumed to be job-related when contracted by all police or firefighters with certain years of service. The bill would reduce the period of time in which the disease must be diagnosed after leaving the job, restrict the ability of those who use tobacco or do not follow doctors’ recommendations from collecting benefits and limit the benefits paid to those who are diagnosed after retirement to medical benefits only.


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