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Several States Pass Criminal Justice Measures


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Noel King.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Florida was just one of many states to enact new criminal justice measures this week.

KING: Yeah, voters there passed a constitutional amendment that's going to restore voting rights to more than a million convicted felons who have finished their sentences. Now, that means there could be more than a million potential new voters in the state of Florida.

INSKEEP: Wow, the electorate just got bigger in a very important state. NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now to talk about some key justice reform efforts. Hey there, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: That is an amazing number, actually. One - actually something as high as 1 1/2 million people in Florida, right?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, it is kind of incredible. I mean, the state's restrictive laws denied the vote to this very large group estimated to be 1.4 million in Florida. Convicted murderers and sex offenders, we should note, are still barred from voting under this amendment. But it's just a large group of ex-felons will now get to vote. In fact, The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit, believes Florida's formerly incarcerated, Steve, make up close to one-quarter of the entire disenfranchised population in America.

And on the ground in Florida, about 30 percent of those formerly incarcerated are African-American men and women. So that community was disproportionately affected. So Tuesday's vote means potentially a big change and one that was long in coming. Activists on the ground have been working to try to get this changed for 20 years.

INSKEEP: Let's move over to another state now because Louisiana had a ballot measure that passed that also affects the criminal justice system. This ended the practice of allowing non-unanimous juries to convict defendants by a majority vote, more or less. How does that fit into the broader national picture?

WESTERVELT: Well, it is really part, Steve, of a broader picture. And grass-roots activists in Florida and Louisiana, you know, really sort of led the efforts on the ground. These were - many of them were previously, you know, incarcerated. And they're really I think, Steve, trying to change the conversation about mass incarceration in America and asking, you know, how long should a sentence really last? They're saying, you know, if we as a nation are going to take the rehabilitation part of prison seriously, we've got to do more to reduce the prison population, they say, and help those getting out readjust, you know, to life on the outside. Getting out, you know, they face big barriers in housing, voting, education and finding jobs.

I'd like to take a listen to one of those activists who was formerly incarcerated. This is Jay Jordan. He did 14 years for armed robbery. He now directs the Second Chances program with Californians for Safety and Justice in Los Angeles.

JAY JORDAN: If someone was 19 and they committed a crime, and now, you know, they're 40 or 50 years old and still can't improve their economic situation because of an old conviction 30 years ago, is that OK? Is that something that makes sense? I mean, let's have a conversation. Let's also push that conversation toward some type a collective solution that we can all agree on.

WESTERVELT: So, Steve, activists such as Jordan are hoping this bigger conversation about the formerly incarcerated, you know, gains traction in more states in elections ahead.

INSKEEP: Eric, thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.