California’s Democracy: Should Low-Level Felons Be Provided The Right To Vote?

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, nearly six million U.S. citizens are unable to vote because of a past criminal conviction. The rules regarding the rights of ex-felons to vote vary across the nation as noted on this graph by the Brennan Center. In California, every person entitled to register to vote must be a U.S. citizen, a California resident, not in prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony, and at least 18 years of age at the time of the next election. (Cal. Const. Art. II, § 4; Elections Code 2101.)

Whether low-level felons should be entitled to vote should be seen as more than a hot button issue. How fundamental is the right to vote in this country? Whose voice is entitled to be heard? Advocates for restoring the right to vote for ex-felons argue that felon disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact the poor and minority groups. For example, 13 percent of African-American men in this nation have lost their right to vote, which is seven times the national average. In many states, millions continue to be permanently disenfranchised despite completing their sentences. Since the 1970s, this nation has vastly expanded the types of felony crimes and imposed longer and harsher sentences that result in imprisonment in our state prisons.

As further discussed in last month’s The Atlantic article by Daniel Weeks, felons can find themselves, and sometimes indirectly their families, barred from a variety of public services for the remainder of their life—food stamps, public housing, and educational benefits to name just a few.

In 2011, the California Legislature passed, and Governor Brown signed the Criminal Justice Realignment Act (CJRA) which in part created new categories of criminal justice supervision, considered as alternatives to parole. Under Penal Code section 1170(h), low-level felons are sentenced to county jail and/or supervision by the county probation department instead of state prison. Realignment also created two new legal categories of legal supervision for people convicted of low-level felonies after their release from local or state custody: (1) mandatory supervision, and (2) post-release community supervision.

As mentioned in a recent Sacramento Bee article by Christopher Cadelago, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, on behalf of the League of Women Voters and other groups, sued California Secretary of State Debra Bowen alleging voter disenfranchisement. The primary argument advanced by plaintiffs is that tens of thousands of Californians were denied their right to vote because the Secretary of State unlawfully expanded the groups not permitted to vote. Bowen had previously issued a memorandum clarifying the voting status of felons sentenced under CJRA and had made subsequent changes to voter registration forms and informational materials.

It may take a number of years to fully determine whether alignment has been a good or bad thing for our local communities. Regardless, our communities are left to address the realities and difficulties of successful re-entry and reintegration of those leaving our prisons. In America, our laws and treatment of ex-felons is creating a permanent underclass and it is those working at the local level who are left to pick up the pieces.

Perhaps it is time that more of our local officials and communities are heard on this issue and asked to join this conversation.

Image Source: Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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