by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
The headlines and political pundits are still focused on how last Tuesday’s election impacts our partisan political system. Less discussed are the series of major civil liberties victories that also took place last Tuesday. These victories need to be recognized and celebrated!
Tuesday’s election reinforced, once again, that the movement from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime” is happening, and it transcends traditional political party divisions. In California, voters overwhelming approved the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014 (also known as Proposition 47). Prop. 47 turns many low-level nonviolent crimes, such as simple drug possession and petty theft, from felonies to misdemeanors. This will not only reduce the number of people sent to prison for non-violent offenses, but because the proposition directs financial savings to K-12 schools, mental health and drug treatment, and crime victim services, it will also shift an estimated $1 billion in the next five years alone from the state corrections department to K-12 school programs, mental health and drug treatment, and victim services.
In Oregon, Alaska, and DC, voters decided to legalize marijuana. These votes will not only save these states and DC millions annually, but will also help to end the disproportionate impact that the war on drugs has on communities of color. As the ACLU found in its recent report, African Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, including in Virginia (2.8 times more likely in VA). This disparity exists despite the fact that African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate.
Florida came close to becoming the first southern state to approve public access to marijuana for medical purposes – obtaining 57% support, just three percentage points short of Florida’s 60% requirement for a ballot initiative.
In New Jersey, voters approved a bail reform measure that will create an objective risk assessment tool for judges to use when considering the risk of danger to the community in setting conditions of or when denying pretrial release. As the ACLU of NJ pointed out, “society does not benefit when people are made to await trial behind bars for months or even years simply because they cannot afford a few thousand dollars in bail.”
These victories show that the failed war on drugs and “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice are on their last legs – and it’s about time!
While the national trend is clear, Virginia is still far from “smart on crime.” Virginia’s incarceration rate has increased 735% since 1970. This increase has disproportionately impacted people of color (also resulting in hundreds of thousands being denied the right to vote). For example, 72% of those in prison for a drug offense are African American (even though African Americans make up only 20% of Virginia’s population). Looking just at marijuana possession, the enforcement disparity is just as stark. In 2010 African Americans in Virginia made up 19.8% of the population, yet received 43.4% of all marijuana possession arrests.  And, in many areas of Virginia it was even worse for African Americans.  In Fairfax and Loudoun for example, African Americans were approximately three times more likely to be arrested for possession.  In Arlington, African Americans were almost eight times more likely to be arrested.    But, the tide is turning even in Virginia. As we wrote following former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s terrific op ed in the Washington Post, criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth is something that liberals and conservatives can agree on!
Privacy and abortion also won on Tuesday when, for the third time since 2008, Colorado voters said no to a personhood amendment that would have further injected politicians into a women’s private life and would have banned abortion, and, possibly, some forms of birth control. In North Dakota, personhood proponents made their first ballot attempt, and voters defeated the measure there as well. North Dakota is electorally “red” and is therefore assumed to be against abortion rights, but it reminded us all that regardless of its voters' personal beliefs about abortion, voters don’t believe that politicians should impose their personal views and restrict access to a safe, legal procedure. Colorado and North Dakota voters reminded us that, for them, a woman’s decision to have an abortion is a personal, private decision between her, her family, and her doctor. It is none of the politicians’ business.
Unfortunately, as is the case with criminal justice reform, Virginia is lagging well behind the national trend, and politicians here still believe that they, not a woman and her doctor, should make private, medical decisions for Virginia women. For example, in Virginia:
  • Legislators have dictated what doctors say to women seeking abortion;
  • Legislators, not doctors, have decided a woman must have an ultrasound before any abortion, and her doctor must give her government written information, including realistic photos of what a fetus looks like at two-week intervals;
  • Legislators, not doctors, have also decided that every woman must wait 24 hours after having an ultrasound and receiving the government written literature before she can have an abortion;
  • Legislators, not insurance companies, have decided that private health insurance that covers abortion cannot be offered through the state health care exchange;
  • Legislators have denied abortion coverage for women eligible for Medicaid, except in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest, or totally incapacitating fetal anomaly;
  • Legislators have restricted young women's access to abortion services by mandating parental consent and notice;
  • Legislators have decided that doctors and hospitals can refuse to provide women abortions – even when medically necessary; and
  • Under extreme pressure from politicians, Board of Health members, not safety officials or architects, have required doctors’ offices and health centers that provide abortion services to meet medically unnecessary building requirements, not applied to other similar medical facilities, or shut down.
Fortunately, as with criminal justice reform, there is reason for hope in the Commonwealth. Just last month, the Virginia Health Commissioner decided that the current, medically unnecessary regulations designed to regulate abortion out of existence should be amended.
We’re keeping up the pressure to end this kind of legislative and regulatory attack on women’s access to abortion. And, we won’t stop until all Virginia women seeking abortion have access to safe, legal abortion.
Looking at the issues before the voters, Tuesday’s results sent a clear message – from ending the war on drugs and ”tough on crime” responses to ensuring that politicians are not between a woman and her doctor, the values of liberty and privacy are alive and well in America.
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