WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Justice Action Network, the largest bipartisan organization working to reform the justice system at the state and federal levels, saw their state legislative champions of justice reform pull off impressive victories last night. With a Senate whip count on the federal prison and sentencing reform package just days away, these state success stories could help persuade members who are still on the fence about the political viability of criminal justice issues.
“From our Dignity bill sponsor in Kentucky, to Clean Slate supporters in Pennsylvania, and from sentencing reform advocates in Minnesota, to pretrial reform champions in Ohio, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who supported fixes to our broken justice system proved that these reforms make for sound policy and successful politics,” said Holly Harris, Executive Director of the Justice Action Network. “Now with the election behind us, we urge leaders on both sides of the aisle to pivot, and work together toward solutions to our country’s greatest problems—starting with bipartisan prison and sentencing reforms at the federal level. The American people want this legislation, and they will reward those who support it. Just ask our state legislative champions who put victories on the board last night.”
Here are some of the biggest stories from state legislative races across the country:
Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-36): Sen. Adams, a strong advocate for criminal justice reform, was the primary sponsor of the first “Dignity Bill” to pass in the entire country. This legislation improved conditions for incarcerated women, prioritized treatment over incarceration for those struggling with addiction, and eliminated the shackling of pregnant women. Sen. Adams, a Republican, hails from a district in Louisville where Democrats outnumber Republicans, making it the toughest district in the entire majority caucus. Despite losses across the board for Republican candidates all over Louisville, Sen. Adams emerged victorious, winning 53% of the vote. Her sponsorship of criminal justice reform legislation was a major issue in the campaign.
Robby Mills (R-4): Mills challenged Sen. Dorsey Ridley, a Democrat, who was one of only four senators to vote against the bipartisan “Dignity Bill.” Despite high name identity and more than 15 years of uncontested incumbency in his western Kentucky district, Ridley fell to Mills, who voted for the “Dignity Bill” as a state representative. Mills, a small business owner who has stated his support for second chances, won that race with 51% of the vote.
Sheryl Delozier (R-88): Rep. Delozier was a primary sponsor for the bipartisan “clean slate” bill, automatic record sealing legislation that was the first of its kind to pass in the entire country. Rep. Delozier outperformed every Republican on the ballot in her district, winning her race with a whopping 58% of the vote. Her campaign literature made prominent mention of her support for criminal justice reform legislation. Her Democratic co-sponsor on the “clean slate” bill, Rep. Jordan Harris (D-186) of Philadelphia, was so powerful he didn’t even draw an opponent in his race.
Art Haywood (D-4): Sen. Haywood, who named his campaign committee “Campaign for Compassion,” pulled off one of the most lopsided victories of the night, winning 86% of the vote. Haywood, a passionate advocate for transformational changes in the Pennsylvania justice system, including badly-needed sentencing reforms, is set to chair the bipartisan criminal justice reform caucus with Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-46), who also clobbered her opponent, winning almost 60% of the vote.
Rob McColley (R-1): Sen. McColley, a rising star in Ohio and perhaps one of the greatest success stories of the criminal justice reform movement, bested his opponent with an overwhelming 73% of the vote. McColley’s first big legislative victory was as a state representative, where he sponsored an aggressive civil asset forfeiture reform bill, which required a criminal conviction before the government can forfeit a person’s property. That success propelled him into leadership in the House, where he then assisted in ensuring that the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (T-CAP) program survived a brutal budget process. McColley was then selected by Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof to fill a vacant senate seat, and last night was his first test representing Senate District 1.
Cecil Thomas (D-9): Sen. Thomas, who hails from Cincinnati, has been an aggressive advocate for criminal justice reform legislation, and has proven he is willing to put aside politics and reach across the aisle to support solutions for his constituents. In fact, he worked with then-Rep. McColley on the groundbreaking civil asset forfeiture reform bill, addressing an issue that often has a disproportionate impact on poor and disadvantaged communities. Sen. Thomas easily defeated his opponent, winning a lopsided 76% of the vote.
Rep. Nick Zerwas (R) 30A: Rep. Zerwas was first elected in 2012 and is a member of the House Public Safety Committee. Rep. Zerwas strongly supports criminal justice reform efforts and is the chief author of a bill to cap probation sentences. He won his race in a landslide victory with 64% of the vote.
Rep. Fue Lee (DFL) 59A: Rep. Lee was elected in 2016 and is an emerging leader in the House DFL Caucus. Lee strongly supports criminal justice reform efforts and has co-authored legislation to cap probation sentences and address re-entry issues. He won his race handily, 86%-14%.