A look at voter-decided ballot initiatives that could impact child welfare and juvenile justice
Next week, hundreds of politicians will be on the ballot, from President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden all the way to local town council representatives. And in many states, those races will be accompanied on the ballot by initiatives that put public policy directly in the hands of voters.
Following is a rundown of the state ballot initiatives with the most chance to impact families and children involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug despite the fact that 11 states in the country have legalized its recreational use. While legalization has not sanctioned the possession and use of the drug for minors, it has relegated that transgression to a status offense, rather than a potential misdemeanor or felony.
In child welfare, marijuana continues to play a major role in decisions despite greater legal tolerance of its use. Even in some states where weed is legal, a child can still be removed because of exposure to marijuana in the womb, and parents are still subject to drug tests that screen for the presence of THC.
A 2017 study by the University of Connecticut and and University of Indiana used federal data from 2004 to 2013 to assess the impact of state changes in minimum wage on maltreatment. It found that a $1 increase in the minimum wage “implies” a 10% decrease in reports of child neglect – not exactly causal, but important nonetheless.
So if that implied relationship holds true for Florida – home to 253,124 maltreatment reports in 2018 – the state is in for a massive decline in neglect reports. On the ballot next week is an amendment to take the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 up to $15 by 2026. This would likely be a boon to system performance given the recent USA Today exposé on Florida’s struggles with foster care placements, and within that story, the displeasure with the state’s current system voiced by its own child welfare director.
In the past two years, seven states have had voters directly decide on what’s known as a Marsy’s Law, a guarantee of access and input for crime victims. All seven states approved them.
The original Marsy’s Law was approved by California voters in 2008, and was named for Marsy Nicholas, sister of tech billionaire Henry Nicholas. Marsy, a student at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Henry Nicholas has bankrolled efforts to replicate the law through the nonprofit Marsy’s Law for All, which assists the creation of local chapters to push for state action. Illinois and Ohio have adopted legislation similar to California’s.
Some justice advocates worry about the impact of these laws on the juvenile justice system; click here for more on that from our 2018 ballot rundown, a year in which six states approved a Marsy’s Law. And click here for a more personal view of this issue from a youth advocate in Pennsylvania.
Youth with Disabilities
Currently, Utah law permits only one spending lane for income tax and certain property taxes collected by the state: education. Voters next week will decide if that can be expanded to include spending on “supporting children” and people with disabilities.
This theoretically could mean more of the state’s revenue going into child welfare and other social services. But Voices for Utah Children has opposed the amendment, describing it as a shell game that will actually delay a more serious push for overall greater resources to fund services and schools.
“If you’re a fan of election year promises that won’t be kept, then Constitutional Amendment G is for you,” wrote Voices fiscal policy director Matthew Weinstein, in a recent op-ed.
Two years ago, Californians approved a proposition to end cash bail in the state, which was meant to be a progressive reform aimed at leaving the impoverished in jail while others could afford to free themselves pending their day in court.
But the state could not just get rid of bail and replace it with nothing, there had to be a way for the courts to determine who could and could not be released before trial. The plan was to develop a risk assessment to be used to make those determinations. Most people suspected of misdemeanors would be released, as would anyone gauged to be low risk. High risk suspects would all be jailed pre-trial, leaving medium risk suspects as the group where local courts had some discretion.
There is now widespread concern that the risk assessment will actually spur greater racial and socioeconomic disproportionality in who is jailed before trial, which has created some strange alignments on a new ballot initiative that will serve as a referendum on the end to cash bail. Predictably, the bail industry in California is leading the charge in pushing for voters to scrap the whole experiment and go back to cash bail. And they are now joined in that mission by the California NAACP and all of California’s ACLU affiliates.
Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party continues to support the plan to replace cash bail with a risk assessment, as does Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D) and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
California does not permit bail within the juvenile justice system, so the youth directly impacted here are largely those who are transferred into the adult system at 16 or 17. But this proposition is also perhaps the most high-profile referendum ever on the use of risk assessments in social policy-making. Child welfare and juvenile justice systems around the country are pondering the current impact of risk assessments on critical decisions like detention and removals to foster care, and whether or not to incorporate new tools fueled by predictive algorithms.