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Initiative and Referendum: Another Front.

While it is justifiable that the majority of government relations' attention is focused on the executive and legislative branches, an increasing number of issues are being set before the public in the form of initiatives, referendums or state constitutional amendments. Citizens in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have the ability to vote on some type of ballot measure. These include state constitutional amendments in all 50 states and some form of initiative or referendum in 27 states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, voters in 42 states cast their ballots for 204 ballot measures. Many of these dealt with a variety of criminal justice-related issues.


It could be said that, at least in California, the public sentiment is that we as a country incarcerate too many nonviolent drug offenders. It will be interesting to see how this is implemented or if this idea catches on in other parts of the country. At the same time, this new requirement also will place additional pressures on treatment options available to offenders. This change in direction could eventually lead to a reallocation of resources away from incarceration and toward treatment. What is interesting is that this never really became part of the debate on this high-profile issue in the nation's largest state.

In a continuation of a trend that began in 1998, states considered a variety of measures addressing drug policies. The most significant of these was a measure that passed in California to mandate treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. Estimates are that this proposal could reduce the state's prison population by nearly 20,000, or 12 percent. The margin was 60 percent to 40 percent. A similar measure in Massachusetts was defeated after it was opposed by law enforcement officials.

Oregon and Utah approved changes to their asset forfeiture laws. Medical marijuana initiatives were passed in Colorado and Nevada. A broader legalization of marijuana was defeated in Alaska.


Gun control advocates scored big victories in Colorado and Oregon. The measures will require people purchasing guns at gun shows to be subjected to background checks. It is notable that both these states had been the sites of high-profile school shootings in recent years. With the congressional deadlock on gun issues, it can be expected that supporters of increased gun control will attempt to get such proposals on more state ballots.

Virginia voters approved a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to hunt and fish. Under the Virginia system, this was seen as a way to make it difficult for localities to pass gun control initiatives.

Sex Offenders

New Jersey voters passed an initiative to enhance enforcement, registration and public notice under Megan's Law. This vote showed the continuing concern for the reintegration of sex offenders into the community.

Local Law Enforcement

Voters in Connecticut eliminated the office of sheriff and replaced it with a system of marshals who will be state rather than local officials. While the defeat was seen as significant, it appears to have had more to do with the structure of Connecticut's local government than the functions performed by the sheriffs in that state.


This article is not a comprehensive discussion of the criminal justice-related issues that appeared on November 2000 ballots. It merely highlights some of the higher-profile and more controversial measures that were considered.

Because of the emotion involved in and scope of these issues, it becomes difficult for the corrections profession to make its voice heard in this arena. All too often, the public gets caught up in what sounds good rather than what is good public policy. The amount of attention attracted by these proposals varies widely. With some exceptions, the average voter has little knowledge or interest in these non-candidate items, which appear on the ballot. That makes it virtually impossible to make arguments about the merits or problems surrounding a proposal. Instead, we just have to depend on the voters to make the best decisions with the information that is available to them.

What becomes interesting in these proposals is that they give us some insight into public opinion on criminal justice issues. We can expect our elected officials to reflect these opinions. Our job, then, becomes to educate those elected officials regarding our needs and the needs of a sound justice policy. Those needs all too often are quite contrary to popular public opinion.

James S. Turpin, CAE, is ACA's legislative liaison.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:United States
Author:Turpin, James S.
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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