Voting Rights To Be Restored For Low-Level Offenders in CA

Original article appeared in Patch

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California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in Oakland today that he will end a policy implemented by his predecessor, Debra Bowen, that he said disenfranchised low-level offenders who should be allowed to vote.

Padilla, who took office in January, said he agrees with Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo, who ruled last year that Bowen acted illegally in December 2011 by sending a directive to local elections officials stating that people on post-release community supervision or mandatory supervision are ineligible to vote. Those programs were two new supervision programs for people sentenced for low-level, non-violent felonies.

Bowen issued her directive after Gov. Jerry Brown decided earlier in 2011 to make room in the state’s crowded prisons by establishing a realignment program that created new classes of offenders: low-level felons who serve their sentences in county jail instead of state prison and felons released from prison who are supervised by county probation departments instead of state parole agents.

Bowen appealed Grillo’s ruling, but Padilla said at a news conference on the steps of the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland this morning that he is dropping the appeal. Padilla said that means about 60,000 Californians who are subject to post-release community supervision or mandatory supervision under realignment will be eligible to vote once the court has officially dismissed the appeal.

“I think this is the right thing to do,” Padilla said, arguing that civic engagement and participation in the election process can be important factors in helping former offenders reintegrate into civil society.

“If we are serious about slowing the revolving doors at our jails and prisons, and serious about reducing recidivism, we need to engage, not shun, former offenders,” Padilla said.

“Voting is a key part of that engagement, it is part of a process of becoming vested and having a stake in the community,” he said.

Padilla said the California Constitution and state election laws say that only people who are in prison or who on parole for a felony conviction are ineligible to vote and people who are on other forms of supervision, such as those on felony probation or drug diversion, have the right to vote.

The lawsuit that led to Grillo’s ruling was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children on behalf of three people who had lost their right to vote. It was also filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of California and All of Us or None, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families.

Among those who joined Padilla at the news conference today were Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna Harris, Los Angeles County Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers, Helen Hutchinson of the League of Women Voters of California and Dorsey Nunn, the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.