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What Election Day means for mass incarceration


In the most rousing part of a recent speech, President Obama declared “Justice is on the ballot! … Ending mass incarceration: that’s on the ballot right now!”

And while diverse media sources have analyzed the presidential candidates’ positions on criminal justice — see, for example, this and this — it is critical to remember that mass incarceration is primarily a state-based phenomenon:

That means your votes down the ballot (and on the back side!) are the most relevant to ending mass incarceration in Ohio. For example, did you know that all 88 county prosecutors in our state are up for election next week? Fordham University professor John Pfaff’s research has demonstrated that felony filings by prosecutors increased dramatically from 1994–2009. At the beginning of that period, about one-third of all criminal filings were for felonies; by the end, two-thirds were. And there was no correlation between crime rate and this dramatic shift to charging more people with more felonies. Ending mass incarceration requires that voters like you hold prosecutors accountable for delivering safety, not just more felony filings.

Another major player in the mass incarceration juggernaut are local judges. For example, Ohio legislators attempted to reduce mass incarceration with a major bill in 2011 that required judges to sentence people with first-time, low-level, non-violent felonies to probation and alternative programming. However, since 2011, judges have been increasingly using technical probation violations as a reason to then quickly send these same people to prison. On November 8th, you will have several judicial choices on your ballot. The Ohio Supreme Court, in partnership with the University of Akron, has done you a great favor in highlighting and providing extensive information on these judicial races at the Judicial Votes Count website.

Reclaim democracy: ORGANIZE!

With the election less than a week away, you may be dissatisfied with all of the choices on your ballot. If so, what else could you do to make sure that ending mass incarceration truly shows up on your next ballot in two years or four? The answer requires an understanding of how local political power works. Here at OJPC, we draw great inspiration from our partners in the Ohio Organizing Collaborative who demonstrate this every day. Watch this video to get a sense of how they refused to accept the “politics as usual” response to police violence in Cleveland:

We want to hear from you! How is mass incarceration showing up on your ballot? How has it influenced your choices? Where are you dissatisfied and what would you wish for instead? Let’s keep the dialogue going on Facebook.