March 7, 2012 - Lawsuit: Some Convicted Felons Should Be Allowed to Vote. Groups argue nonviolent felons sent to county jail to reduce overcrowding have right to vote.
Source: The Bay Citizen
Title: Lawsuit: Some Convicted Felons Should Be Allowed to Vote. Groups argue nonviolent felons sent to county jail to reduce overcrowding have right to vote.
Date: March 7, 2012
By: Trey Bundy
Convicted felons serving time in county jails should be allowed to vote, lawyers for the California League of Women Voters and two other nonprofit groups argued in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Under California law, convicted felons who are serving time in state prison or who are on parole cannot vote. But the groups claim the law does not apply to those felons who serve their sentences in county jails. In October, California began sending felons convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses to county facilities in order to reduce overcrowding at state prisons.
“It’s our view that people who are not in state prison or state parole are able to vote,” said Jory Steele, the managing attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, which represented the plaintiffs. Besides the League of Women Voters, the plaintiffs are Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a subsidiary of that group called All of Us or None, and San Francisco jail inmate Alisha Coleman.
The lawsuit is the latest test of Gov. Jerry Brown’s criminal justice realignment plan, which he introduced last year as a way to reduce prison costs and comply with court mandates to cut the prison population.
In December, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who is named in the suit, issued a memorandum saying that convicted felons do not have the right to vote, whether they are in state prison or in a county facility, because county supervision is equivalent to parole.
Steele said Bowen’s interpretation of realignment’s impact on voting rights was wrong and that offenders in county jail or under local supervision are not technically on parole.
Bowen did not respond to a request for comment. Her spokeswoman, Shannan Velayas, said in an email that her office does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit, filed in the state’s appellate court, cites a 2006 ruling from the same court, which found that people serving time in county jail as a condition of felony probation were entitled to vote.
The California Constitution had denied voting rights for life to people convicted of felonies until 1974, when state voters approved an amendment narrowing that exclusion to those who are in prison or on parole for felonies.
Also named in the suit is John Arntz, director of the San Francisco Department of Elections. Arntz told The Bay Citizen Wednesday that he had not yet reviewed the petition, but he cited Bowen's December memo.
“We follow that guidance,” he said.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that under realignment approximately 85,000 people will be sentenced to local jails and supervision or released to counties from state prisons by June 2013.
Steele asked the court to clarify which offenders are eligible to vote before Oct. 22, the last day of voter registration before the November election.
“There’s an urgency to this decision,” she said.
In a statement Wednesday, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, whose department oversees rehabilitation programs in county jail, said he supports the “spirit” of the lawsuit: “We believe that facilitating a prisoner's right to vote engenders in them a sense of responsibility and inclusion, both of which are essential ingredients to successful reentry,” he said.
Nick Gregoratos, director of prisoner legal services for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, said county jail workers teach inmates about voting rights and even register eligible offenders before elections.
“We’ve had people who are shocked they can vote and feel really good about it,” he said. “Anything we can do to help them feel like they’re part of society and not want to reoffend, it’s the right thing to do.”
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