17-year-old high school student Trayvon Martin was murdered in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012. Seventeen months later, his killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted. In response to this travesty of justice, three Black organizers created the social movement known as “Black Lives Matter.”
Zimmerman, a 29-year-old man functioning as a “neighborhood watch captain,” gunned down the Black teen because he suspected Martin was engaged in criminal activity, primarily because he was wearing a sweatshirt hoodie. The self-styled vigilante was acquitted by a six-person jury in July 2013.
Black Lives Matter
That same month, Black Lives Matter was founded to create a nationwide awareness that Black people have historically been, and continue to be, stigmatized by the racist sentiment that “black is criminal” and the reality that their lives do not matter. This systemic racism has led to thousands of lynchings of Black men, the institutional subrogation of an entire people, and unjustified shooting deaths of Black men, predominantly by White law enforcement officers.
Organizing responses to the unjustified killings of two Black men in 2014, Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland by white police officers made Black Lives Matter a household name. Throughout 2013 and 2014, “Black Lives Matter” was also used to amplify anti-Black racism across the country in response to the killings of Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland. The movement was met with disdain by white cops, Republican politicians, and religious and politically conservative people, who were still roiling under the presidency of the nation’s first African American man.
Throughout 2015 and during the presidential election campaigns in 2016, Donald Trump tapped into the “white resentment” against Black Lives Matter and the criminal justice reforms that BLM and other reform groups advocated. To capture the nation’s presidency, Trump ran a wild-eyed, “please don’t be too nice” to criminal suspects law-and-order campaign.
But thanks to reform-minded activists, organizers and donors, who funded the campaigns of district attorneys in six states, criminal justice reform gained traction, despite the general white sentiment against any reforms that affected people of color.
In 2016, district attorneys who ran on a reform platform were elected in seven states, including two in Texas (one in Houston and the other in Corpus Christi). However, not all those elected on their progressive platforms remained true to the movement.
Progress in Criminal Legal Reform
And despite two years of President Trump’s continued racist law-and-order messaging and his politically-motivated policies of stoking racial divisions in every segment of society, calls for reforms by criminal justice advocates produced the enactment of a significant number of federal and state legislative reform measures. The Sentencing Project recorded some of these reforms:
- California eliminated life without parole in felony murder cases in which the offender did not actually commit the murder.
- Florida enacted legislation that made previously enacted sentencing reforms retroactive.
- Michigan, Mississippi, and Oklahoma passed legislation that improved parole review hearings, limited incarceration for parole violators, and created presumptive parole standards for certain offenders.
- Florida passed legislation that extended the right to vote to ex-felons while Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Illinois, and Colorado took efforts to expand voter participation for ex-felons.
- Florida and Connecticut took significant steps to address historical racial and ethnic disparities in their criminal justice systems.
- Missouri raised the age from 17 to 18 for juvenile offenders who can be tried as adults.
In a rare bipartisan effort, Congress enacted the FIRST STEP Act just before Christmas in 2018.
Reason reported the reform benefits of this federal legislation:
The Act “expands job training opportunities for federal prisoners, calls for inmates to be housed within 500 miles of their hometowns and families when possible, and bans the shackling of pregnant inmates. It also reduces some mandatory minimum sentences, gives judges more leeway to show mercy with “safety valve” provisions, and, perhaps most importantly, retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to prisoners who have been given harsher sentences for drug crimes because they involved crack instead of powder cocaine. That last part is expected to reduce the sentences of approximately 3,000 prisoners.”
These state and federal reform measures were made politically possible, partly because of the efforts of the organizations like Black Lives Matter, organized coalitions demanding change, and because violent crime was declining across the country, especially in the larger cities.
2020 Changes Trajectory of Criminal Justice Reform
Then two life-altering events happened in America in 2020: the lethal emergence of the COVID 19 pandemic in February and the brutal murder of George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officers in May.
The George Floyd murder spawned massive social protests across America and around the world.
George Floyd’s Murder Spawns Massive Protests
As Americans tried to come to grips with the tens of thousands of people dying from the pandemic, the George Floyd protests spread to at least 140 cities across the country. In the summer of 2020, millions of Americans protested in mostly peaceful demonstrations. But some turned destructive as disparate groups converged in violence, and others clashed with police. Protests that were peaceful during the day often spun out of control by night, leading to looting and destruction of property. White Americans were scared again, and political fear mongers knew how to stoke those fears.
Trump Throws Gasoline on Fire
To rally and solidify his white nationalist base, Trump escalated tensions by calling protestors “thugs” and saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Police and national guard units often encouraged and stoked escalation with indiscriminate use of rubber bullets and tear gas. The result was an unnecessary loss of life and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
Amid this social chaos, some progressive Democrats and many criminal justice reform groups continued calling for police reform measures, including “defunding the police.”
Criminal Legal System Reforms Meet Politics of Fear
Law and order Republicans, led by President Trump, pounced on these reform measures, particularly the “defund the police” demands, like a tiger on raw meat. All the reform measures enacted across the country in 2016 and 2018 were looped together and attacked as Democratic initiatives that encouraged violence and threatened public safety.
COVID, Economic Shutdown Spurs Desperation and Crime
There were legitimate reasons for the public safety concerns: the nation’s murder rate in 2020 increased dramatically, and violent crime rose sharply as the pandemic ravaged the country with hundreds of thousands of deaths and economic destruction. Fear, again, became a part of the nation’s social fabric.
This fear was seized upon by political conservatives who led a resurgence of law-and-order campaigns.
The resounding and legitimate political defeat of Donald Trump exploded the racial and political divisions already gripping the nation. American society has become virtually paralyzed with racism, violence, and mass shootings. Civil and political conflict has become the social order of the day.
Elections See Backlash Against Some Reformers
The 2022 elections saw some criminal justice reform advocates swept from office or defeated in elections after being accused of being too “liberal” on crime or being aligned with the “defund the police” movement.
The murder rate, mass shootings, and violent crime have continued to rise through 2021 and 2022. Oddly, during the same period, property crimes have decreased.
The nation is gripped with anger and fear.
“Criminal justice reform” seems to have lost much of its political energy. Already through the political primary season of 2022 leading up to the mid-term elections, there are signs that criminal justice reforms—like the elimination of cash bail, sentencing reform, and reduction of mass incarceration—will not fare well in the upcoming mid-term elections.
Reform DA in San Francisco Loses Election
On June 7, 2022, voters in San Francisco ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a criminal justice reformer who “eliminated cash bail, vowed to hold police accountable and worked to reduce the number of people sent to prison.” Many pundits immediately pointed to Boudin’s defeat as a repudiation of criminal justice reform.
Politics is Still Local
Others took a more sophisticated position and pointed out that Boudin made many mistakes in office, including ignoring pleas from Chinese constituents, who felt vulnerable after racist, violent attacks on their community. The vote, they argue, can also be seen as the accumulation of “frustration by city residents over squalid street conditions, including the illicit drug sales, homeless encampments and untreated mental illness.”
However, a survey of state elections showed mixed results, with progressive candidates and progressive policies winning many races.
Criminal Justice Reform Movement Fared Well
The LA Times Editorial Board was cautious after surveying election results across the state when it announced: Ignore the early reviews. California’s criminal justice reform movement fared well on election day.
“Taken as a whole, Tuesday’s election results show little evidence of an end to the criminal justice reform era here or across the nation. Most Californians want a justice system that is fair, measured and responsible, not one that is based on fear and the longest possible prison terms for the greatest number of people. With a few notable exceptions, they made that clear by the choices on their ballots.”
California Elections Results are Instructive
There is good evidence from election results statewide that voters were “simply angry” with the government for not doing its job.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight writes, “They’re simply angry. Steamed. Pissed off. Tired of ideology taking precedence over real nuts-and-bolts progress. Fed up that nothing related to city government seems to be working. Frustrated that this city with so much potential isn’t remotely living up to it. Irate that a city with so many built-in advantages — wealth, beauty, diversity, creativity, smarts — is so much less than the sum of its parts.”
Critics also say DA Boudin did little to solve growing problems in San Francisco, such as failing to aggressively prosecute drug traffickers who operated in open-air fentanyl markets that have contributed to the overdose death of 1500 people in the city. Others point to mismanagement of the DA’s Office that has led to seasoned lawyers and employees leaving the office and cases being “bungled” and neglected. These critics argue that Boudin simply didn’t do a good job or failed to communicate his accomplishments and respond to constituent concerns effectively.
These elections seem to indicate that people want concrete progress and safe, secure communities that function. They want an honest government that works well for all its people. It is simple, when the government doesn’t work and people are in crisis, they blame their elected officials and look for something new. But, to conclude that these recent elections demonstrate disapproval of criminal justice reform is intellectually dishonest.
Historic Racism Fuels Reactionary Politics
Tragically, the political efforts to undermine the criminal justice reforms already in place and to prevent others from happening are fueled by the same historic systemic racism that created the need for the reforms in the first place.
Despite the protests, platitudes, and legislation, police continue unrelenting attacks on communities of color; prosecutors continue intentional misconduct to convict Black people; and judges continue to impose disparate sentences on Black defendants. Unfortunately, this means that mass incarceration of people of color is here to stay unless reform policies continue to progress.
Until the criminal legal system is fair to all, America will fail to live up to its promise. It is up to activist, organizers and elected officials to see to it that this promise is kept.