Thursday, 06 August 2015 00:00

Voting rights to be restored for tens of thousands of felons in California

Written by Malaika Fraley | Contra Costa Times
Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna M. Harris speaks as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, second from left, looks on during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2015. Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna M. Harris speaks as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, second from left, looks on during a news conference at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland on Aug. 4, 2015. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

Los Angeles County probation Chief Jerry Powers said he hasn't heard the question over allowing low-level felons to vote posed better than by his 12-year-old son: "Dad, what part of voting makes us less safe?"

"Only a 12-year-old can put it that way. There's not a single part of allowing these individuals to vote that is going to make our society less safe," Powers said Tuesday on the steps of an Oakland courthouse, where California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced the right to vote will soon be restored to tens of thousands of low-level felons in California serving out their sentences under the community supervision provisions of the state's recent criminal justice reforms.

"If we are serious about slowing the revolving door at our jails and our prisons and serious about reducing recidivism, we need to engage, not shun, former offenders," Padilla said. "And voting is a key part of that engagement. It is part of a process of becoming vested, having a stake in the community."

 
 

Alameda County Judge Evelio Grillo ruled last year that offenders being supervised under the state's Public Safety Realignment Act are eligible to vote under the California Constitution, thereby negating a 2011 decision by Padilla's predecessor Debra Bowen that they had no voting rights.

Previously, it was only felons in prison or on parole who weren't allowed to vote. When the realignment act passed in 2011 to integrate low-level offenders back into society and alleviate prison overcrowding, Bowen added the new category of offenders to the can't-vote list, concluding that the supervision created under realignment was "functionally equivalent to parole," and there was no evidence lawmakers had intended to let more convicts vote.

Voting and civil liberties groups sued and won, but Bowen filed an appeal before she termed out last year.

 
 

Padilla announced Tuesday that he's abandoning an appeal he never believed in. He said he agrees with the judge that the secretary of state does not have the power to deny the right to vote to offenders who are no longer in prison or on parole but are being supervised under realignment.

 
 

"I believe it's the right thing to do," Padilla said. "Civic engagement and participation in the electoral process can be an important factor helping former offenders reintegrate into civil society."

An estimated 58,000 people are serving out sentences under the realignment act, which includes people ineligible to vote because they're either underage or noncitizens.

Padilla's announcement came two days before the 50th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that banned racial discrimination in voting.

"It is not lost on me that persons of color are disproportionately represented in correctional institutions and that undeniable disparities exist," Padilla said. "It is not lost on me that many states in our nation are advancing legislation to roll back our voting rights, not just for former offenders but for all voters."

Dorsey Nunn, who was released from prison over 30 years ago and now serves as the executive director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, one of the plaintiffs that challenged Bowen, said when one doesn't have the right to vote, they question whether they are a full citizen.

"This vote that we are talking about is not just simply a vote that belongs to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people," Nunn said. "It's a vote that belongs to our families, to our children, that was fought for and bled for by people of color. So, to me, today is an excellent day, and it's an excellent start."

Link to original article from Contra Costa Times

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