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By Marisa Lagos
California has one of the nation’s most liberal policies when it comes to restoring the voting rights of former criminal offenders: Once people have served their time in prison and on parole, they are automatically eligible to vote.
But as many as 60,000 former offenders have been denied that chance since 2011, because of how former Secretary of State Debra Bowen interpreted a then-new state law.
Now, Bowen’s successor, Alex Padilla, is reversing that decision.
“One of my primary reasons for seeking the office of Secretary of State was to do everything possible to maintain and to strengthen voting rights in California,” Padilla said at an Oakland news conference announcing the decision. “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.”
At issue was Bowen’s interpretation of the 2011 realignment law, which shifted responsibility for many nonviolent offenders from state prison and parole to local jails and probation offices. While people on probation in California have always had the right to vote, Bowen decided that those on probation because of realignment were ineligible to vote because the new class of probation supervision was “akin to parole.”
Civil rights groups disagreed, and filed suit in Alameda Superior Court. In 2014, Judge Evelio Grillo concluded that Bowen’s office was wrong, writing in a ruling that the Legislature considered the new class of supervision different from parole and that the goal of realignment “was to reintroduce felons into the community, which is consistent with restoring their right to vote.”
But Bowen appealed the decision, leaving tens of thousands of former offenders unable to vote — until now. On Tuesday, Padilla said he would drop that appeal and had reached a settlement ending the policy.
Sharron Bolden, a 37-year-old San Diego woman on probation for a drug charge, said she looks forward to going to the ballot box — especially with a presidential race coming up.
“I’m totally excited about voting,” she said. “I think it’s going to be really good for my community. I’m African-American, so obviously I want to see my people excel.”
Also cheering the decision: Probation chiefs, who are responsible for helping people like Bolden succeed.
Los Angeles County Probation Chief Jerry Powers said there will be about 10,000 former offenders in that county who will now be able to vote. He said that will ultimately make communities safer.
“If you talk to offenders, they will tell you some of the biggest obstacles they have when they return to our society is the feeling that they don’t have dignity, that they don’t have any control over their circumstances,” he said. “To the extent that we can help them regain that dignity and regain that control, they are going to be better, more productive members of society.”
Powers said he brought his 12-year-old son to the announcement because it was important for him to see what was happening. He said his son asked him on the way there, “What part of voting could make people less safe?”
“Only a 12-year-old could put it that way, and it’s a good question,” he said. “There’s not a single thing about allowing these individuals to vote that is going to make our society less safe. And as probation chief, that’s what it’s all about — we want a safe society. We want an inclusive society. And the answer is, let’s let them vote.”