Early voting in my home state of Texas begins on Monday, but for millions of Americans who have been involved with the criminal justice system, casting a ballot can prove distinctly more difficult than showing up at a local school gymnasium and clicking a button — as this week’s headlines attest.
In Florida, video footage has emerged of bewildered people, a majority Black, being arrested in part of a “crackdown on voting crimes.” They had cast their ballots after a 2018 state constitutional amendment restored voting rights to residents with felony charges but sowed confusion about who was eligible, even within the state’s voter registration system. “You all are putting me in jail for something I didn’t know nothing about. Why would you all let me vote if I wasn’t able to vote?” asks Tony Patterson as he’s handcuffed outside his home.
In Mississippi, the state attorney general created some confusion of her own by releasing an opinion about how incarcerated individuals who have not lost their right to vote can access the ballot. (As Mississippi Today reports, 11% of the state’s population has lost their right to vote because they were convicted of one of 22 disenfranchising crimes, and 62% of those people are Black. The law was recently challenged for its Jim Crow-era origins.)
Even for people never convicted of a crime, criminal justice involvement can undermine their right to vote. New research by the Public Safety Lab at New York University shows that many county jails don’t provide ballot access to eligible voters who are being detained pretrial or who are serving misdemeanor sentences that do not strip them of the right to vote. The research compares a database of jail records to voting records to look at the turnout of people who are booked during election season.
"We found a really steep decrease in turnout," says Anna Harvey, director of the Public Safety Lab. "Looking within jails and averaging these decreases across all of the jails in our sample, we found there was a 46% decrease in turnout among registered voters incarcerated during voting days in the 2020 election."
For Black communities, which have been overpoliced for decades, that decrease in turnout was even more pronounced, 78% versus 40% for white registered voters. Harvey says this disregard for incarcerated individuals’ voting rights — what some are calling “de facto disenfranchisement” — is an “indictment of our criminal justice system.”
“We need to call on elected representatives … to be aware of this problem,” she says. “This is about our democracy and about individuals’ constitutional rights.”
But it isn’t all bad news. In North Carolina, 56,000 people with prior felony convictions who have paid their debt to society will be able to vote after the state’s Court of Appeals upheld a ruling in favor of expanding eligibility. However, the decision is far from final — the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal. (You can read more about the origins of the case and the voting law’s ties to North Carolina’s racist history here.)
The right to vote — a historically hard-won right for women and people of color — is fundamental for sustaining a representative democracy. Yet for many Americans, any involvement in the criminal justice system can put that right in peril — and this is often by design. Voting rights in this country are inextricably linked to a historical perspective on who should vote, and many of the laws that govern access to that right have their roots in post-Reconstruction-era criminal laws targeted at Black citizens, with the end goal of disenfranchising Black voters.
Locking people out of this right — or intimidating voters who now may be unsure if their right was restored, as in the case of Florida — is antithetical to democracy. An estimated one in 13 Black Americans does not have the right to vote due to past convictions — four times the rate of other Americans — and even more are being denied the right this election due to pretrial detainment. There is a lot of talk about — but little evidence for — uncovering voter fraud this election cycle, but it is the very real systemic suppression of voting rights that is not difficult to find.
State by State, Lifting a Burden
Fines and fees imposed by state juvenile justice systems are crushing young people and their families with debt. Now the national Debt Free Justice campaign is helping to pass bipartisan legislation that eliminates monetary penalties.
What’s Happening: Debt Free Justice works with grassroots state campaigns across the country, sharing lessons to help groups organize, bring the right stakeholders to the table, and develop messaging to advance legislation. The campaign’s gold standard laws eliminate all juvenile fines, ban all fees, and make these changes retroactive. Many jurisdictions have taken major actions. Eight states have abolished all fines and fees in the juvenile justice system. California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon have also relieved youth and families of mountains of outstanding debt. In California, debt relief amounted to $350 million.
Why it Matters: Juvenile fines and fees disproportionately affect youth and families of color, trapping them in the system and setting them up for failure. Monetary penalties increase the likelihood that youth will reoffend. Youth who can’t pay end up on probation, face additional court dates, and can’t get a driver's license. When they reach adulthood, they may face wage garnishment and bankruptcies that make it impossible to rent an apartment or take out student loans. Prohibiting monetary penalties helps to remedy these problems.
What’s Next: While many states have passed new laws, others are still actively campaigning for change to their juvenile justice systems. Debt Free Justice and its local partners are sharing strategies to make progress, despite pushback during the election year.
Priti Krishtel, a longtime health justice attorney and drug pricing activist, has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work to make drug pricing fairer by exposing inequities in the patent system. Krishtel, along with Tahir Amin, is a co-founder of AV grantee I-MAK, the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge, which aims to build a more just and equitable medicines system.
The patent system presents a troubling conundrum when it comes to pricing medicines. Drug companies strategically accumulate patents, building “patent thickets” that protect monopoly pricing power and shut out competitors. The toll? Damaged public health and strain on household budgets. I-MAK recently released a new and detailed report and database on the issue that together lift the veil on how U.S. patents drive drug prices higher on the country’s top 10 best-selling drugs. Momentum in the patent reform space continues to build, encapsulated recently with an endorsement from The New York Times.
We caught up with Krishtel to talk about her "genius" grant:
You’ve just won a prestigious grant, what’s next?
It’s too early to tell – I’m still digesting the news. The news was a complete surprise. I didn’t know until they told me. When they first called me and told me, I didn’t know what to say. They said ‘What are you thinking?’ I answered, ‘You’re the MacArthur Foundation. This is a big deal for the movement.’
Any tips for budding activists in the drug pricing space – or in other areas?
I think it’s figuring out what your superpower is and working on that. This is a very technical space. People tend to get intimidated by all the different parts of the drug pricing or health care system because there is always something to learn. Twenty years in, I’m still learning. Pick up one piece of it, learn that well, and move it forward. We’re all doing our piece of this together and that’s how we make change.
What does this award mean for the drug pricing reform movement writ large in your opinion?
This is a huge validator of the movement’s work and it’s going to give us fuel to push us forward. We just had this win with Medicare negotiation. Now we’re gearing up for the next fight. We’re not going to solve the drug pricing problem until we solve the drug patent problem.
The ‘Failed Experiment’ of American-Style Incarceration
By Evan Mintz, director of communications
A new report published by One Voice United is calling for investments in wellness, training, and safety of correctional officers in order to transform our nation's corrections system.
What's Happening: One Voice United, founded by Andy Potter, above, is a professional association made up of former and current corrections officers who advocate for better working conditions and carceral reforms. Their report focuses on the “wellness crisis” among corrections staff and the need to provide training that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration.
Why it Matters: Corrections staff have a life expectancy 16 years below the national average and a disturbingly high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. At the same time, they're also poorly trained on rehabilitative approaches to incarceration.
What's Next: Commission members called on policymakers to start paying attention to prison conditions and to rethink the role of prisons in the United States.
“After years of this failed experiment, studies consistently show that American-style incarceration does not deliver public safety,” James says. “As counterintuitive as it may seem, reducing prison populations can both increase public safety and decrease the harms experienced by officers, incarcerated people, and all of their families and communities.”
The amount of both Democrats and Republicans who think the nation’s democracy is “in danger of collapse,” according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Independents feel similarly, at 66%. CNN talks with 12 experts on what to do to restore faith and trust in democracy, including Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford and Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute, who advocate for ranked-choice voting and open primaries.
What We're Reading
News21 quotes Walter Katz, Arnold Ventures vice president of criminal justice, as part of an in-depth investigation into the lack of transparency and accountability in policing.
Research by Arnold Ventures grantees Emily Farris and Mirya Holman serves as the foundation of a Marshall Project story on dangerous extremism among elected sheriffs.
CNN has announced a new “Guns in America” beat that will focus on tracking and explaining issues relating to gun violence in the United States.
Related: Nonprofit news outlet The Trace is exclusively devoted to reporting on the epidemic of gun violence. Its journalism is driving change.
New polling finds that a vast majority of gun owners support safety policies such as mandatory background checks for concealed carry permits and restrictions on gun possession for people facing domestic violence restraining orders, Politico reports.
The Atlantic debunks election season scare tactics about criminal justice reform, highlighting a new report that found cities with status-quo district attorneys saw homicide rates increase more rapidly than places with reform-minded prosecutors.
Large health systems use anti-competitive practices to drive prices higher. AV grantee The National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP), has ideas for states to fight back against unhealthy competition.
Inside Philanthropy talks with AV’s Director of Higher Education Kelly McManus about the portfolio’s goals on accountability and outcomes in a broken system.
Preston Cooper talks in Forbes about the shortcomings of Gainful Employment (GE) when it comes to graduate programs. “As it stands now, GE would unfairly penalize trade schools while letting low-quality master’s degree programs off the hook.” Read more in Cooper's report on GE from The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP).
FairVote issued a report on how candidates are able to advance to general elections with a minority support from their primary electorates; it also reveals the frequency of this situation (called a “plurality vote”) during the 2022 primaries for U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and statewide primaries.
In Alaska, candidates are supporting each other in an act of civil campaigning within the ranked-choice voting system. Says Les Gara, Democratic candidate for the Governor of Alaska, in the Frontiersman: “In the new Ranked Choice Voting system, we’ve said all along that we’ll rank Bill Walker second on our ballots. We thank him for recently starting to urge his supporters also to rank us second.”
Rich Powell in The Hill discusses nuclear energy’s comeback in the United States. Powell also recently testified at a United States House Committee on Ways and Means hearing on grid resiliency.
Reuters reports on the importance of producing high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) in the U.S. for advanced nuclear plants. The U.S. Department of Energy plans to award a long-term contract for HALEU in July of next year, according to Exchange Monitor.
ClearPath Managing Director for Research and New Initiatives Spencer Nelson testified at the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources hearing on the need for a diverse set of energy storage solutions to tackle the needs of a 21st Century Grid
What We're Watching
“Arguably one of the most celebrated Americans of the 20th century, and arguably one of the most distorted and misunderstood.”
“She was a soldier from birth.”
“Her quietness was actually her strength.”
Those are just some of the characterizations that aim to capture the spirit and impact of Rosa Parks in the new documentary from executive producer Soledad O'Brien, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” The film jumps back and forth in time, using interviews, archival footage and Parks' own journal entries to chronicle her life and activism beyond the bus boycott. Viewers are introduced to Parks' family tree and learn of the violence she witnessed as a child, when the Ku Klux Klan ruled and she developed a chronic insomnia that followed her into adulthood. We learn of her involvement in the NAACP (she was elected secretary at her first meeting) and her unique role documenting testimonies of violence against the Black community. We also get a fuller retelling of her famous refusal to give up her seat to a white man, an act of defiance that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott but also to personal struggles — she and her husband had to relocate to Detroit after she lost her job and faced death threats, and their time there was not easy. Racism and violence were reality in the North, too. The film brings complexity and nuance to the story we think we know about Parks' heroic life, showcasing her radical activism in the face of injustice, her staunch refusal to be treated as less than, and her gentle fearlessness. It is now streaming on Peacock.
What We're Listening To
Inside Higher Ed's podcast The Key talks with AV's Higher Education Fellow Clare McCann about the question of how value is determined in higher education, how value factors into state and federal policy, what’s driving that trend, and whether an overdependence on economic outcomes can lead to unintended consequences.
Strengthening the workforce to care for older adults and people with disabilities in their homes and in nursing facilities is critical. Tradeoffs podcast explores the current severe shortage of workers in this sector, why the problem is expected to get worse, and what can be done.
On the CityCast Houston podcast, The Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger talks about dangerous conditions in the Harris County jail, which she describes as shocking even for someone who routinely covers the issue.
Save the Date
On Monday, Oct. 24, from noon to 1 p.m. ET, the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy will host a webinar spotlighting a series of potential options for Medicare-Medicaid integration in the state. North Carolina is undertaking a transformational effort to integrate care for individuals dually enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid. Register here.
Some Final Inspiration
The Girl Scouts of America received its largest-ever donation from a single individual, a gift of $84.5 million from MacKenzie Scott. The donation will be awarded to 29 local councils selected by Scott, along with the national chapter.
The Provider Payment Incentivesteam, on behalf of AV grantee the Center for Health Care Strategies and in partnership with The Commonwealth Fund, is requesting applications for a new opportunity for up to five Medicaid agencies to design and implement a new primary care population-based payment (PBP) model or to improve an existing one. Medicaid Primary Care Population-Based Payments Learning Collaborativeis an 18-month program open to Medicaid agencies in all states, commonwealths and territories. States participating in the collaborative will also incorporate approaches to advance health equity within their models. Applications are due Nov. 10, 2022. Details and application materials are here.
Stephanie DiCapua Getman develops and executes Arnold Ventures' digital communications strategy with a focus on multimedia storytelling and audience engagement and oversees daily editorial operations and design.
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