Uprising and Criminal Justice
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
I've been studying criminal justice voting behavior for a [short] while. As it turns out, voters tend to approve criminal justice ballot measures, but they don't show any clear preference for punitive ones (unless they are on the primary ballot, but that's a story for another time). Mostly, voters prefer moderation and support reform as long as it is not radical.
But can political violence and mass uprising convince voters to change the criminal justice course?
As I write this, the 2020 protests have only just begun, but it is clear that they are amongst the most important, impactful, and large-scale in this generation. Coming in a time of a historical pandemic, this era will surely have a deep impact on the American political consciousness. At the epicenter of the uprising is the issue of police brutality and systematic racism -- both are defining features of American criminal justice, sadly.
In a few months, voters will face not just a moral compelling election but also two criminal justice propositions:
California Criminal Sentencing, Parole, and DNA Collection Initiative (2020): A citizen-driven punitive initiative, designed to make the grant of parole more difficult and sparse; increase punishment; enhance the state's capacity to surveil and control criminal justice-involved individuals through the collection of DNA.
California Replace Cash Bail with Risk Assessments Referendum (2020): A rare citizen-driven popular (veto) referendum, meant to repeal existing laws. Specifically, SB-10 which replaced cash-bail with new progressive policies. Although the issues of best practices (from human dignity and due-process standpoint) regarding bail are still contested, it is safe to assume that this is a punitive proposition as well (as SB-10 is a non-punitive law).
My research suggests that the first proposition is likely to pass (not by a landslide though, as it is not moderately punitive), but is difficult to determine the result of the second because of its unique "veto-character" (there are just not enough historical examples to provide info about voting behavior on veto measures. They also tend to be quite confusing...).
Will the uprising be a roadblock in the punitive trajectory? Will voters finally resist the punitive measure and uphold SB-10? How much would voting behavior on criminal justice issues change in 2020?
Enos, Kaufman, and Sands recently argued that "the 1992 Los Angeles riot—one of the most high-profile events of political violence in recent American history ... caused a marked liberal shift in policy support at the polls. Investigating the sources of this shift, we find that it was likely the result of increased mobilization of both African American and white voters. Remarkably, this mobilization endures over a decade later." (Can Violent Protest Change Local Policy Support? Evidence from the Aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riot, American Political Science Review 2019).
Their assumption that "the underlying causes of the riot are unrelated to downstream changes in policy support" fits perfectly with the current uprising. The triggering event, now as in 1992, is a video of police brutality. They write: "Although the riot was a nonrandom event, the timing of the video recording and subsequent trial and conviction were unrelated to the timing of a primary election."
It is difficult to find sources of optimism when the streets are burning and people can't breathe. If political science research is right, however, there might be hope for better, less despicable politics in the future.
Other sources of optimism: