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What we should learn from Brandon Johnson's upset victory in Chicago
Chicago did it!
Brandon Johnson recently won an upset victory to be the next mayor of Chicago. He is a former teacher and organizer who championed the “treatment not trauma” framework for addressing root causes to solve harm and crime. This outcome is the direct result of strong, years-long organizing work. Many, many groups worked to bring about this outcome. To read more about the powerful organizing work behind this win, see here.
But what lessons should we take from this election? What is its import on the national stage? Thankfully, a colleague recently shared their take, which I’m sharing here with permission and some light edits:
This election has been represented as a referendum on crime, justice, and what public safety means to voters. With 44% of voters listing crime and public safety as the top issue in the mayoral race, Paul Vallas led with pro-mass-incarceration policies, while Brandon Johnson offered voters safety proposals based on increasing community and public health investments rather than punitive enforcement. Investing in dispossessed communities, redistributing money from the rich into schools, parks, healthcare, clean air, violence prevention, and fighting for well paying union jobs are all strong anti-crime policies that voters turned out to support.
So what do these resounding defeats of “tough on crime” campaigns tell us?
Despite what we often see represented in media coverage, voters do not want a return to the “lock-em-up” policies that ballooned our prison and jail populations in the 80s and 90s, and they do not believe these policies make us safer. This is consistent with recent national polling, which found that 80% of all voters support criminal justice reform, including 85% of Democratic voters and 74% of Republican voters. It’s also consistent with recent election results in the midterm elections. Senator John Fetterman stood by his record on reform amidst vicious attacks and won his PA senate seat. Democrats in IL spoke openly about the Pretrial Fairness Act and the continued need for justice reform, and prevailed in their elections. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass defeated Rick Caruso despite his $100million in spending and premises to increase punitive enforcement. And after hardline opponents of reform spent tens of millions attacking Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Stitt on his multi-year criminal justice reform record, he won re-election by a larger margin than he did four years ago.
Thus, in spite of how these races are covered, these results should not be a surprise. The harms of incarceration have been well-documented and experienced by millions of Americans over the last several decades. 1 in 2 American adults has had a family member incarcerated. Moreover, a robust body of research built over decades has proven that jail stays and long prison sentences do not reduce crime rates, and Americans in 37 states have experienced first-hand reductions in both crime and incarceration rates simultaneously. So if - as so many political pundits assured us in the lead-up - Chicago’s election result was a midwestern referendum on crime and justice, we must call the results correctly: voters understand that mass incarceration does not make us safer and are demanding real safety solutions and more justice at the same time.
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