Viewpoints

Everyone deserves the right to vote — including parolees. California can lead the way

As voter suppression efforts continue to grab national headlines, one suffrage movement is gaining momentum across the country: The fight to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

In November, nearly two-thirds of voters in Florida restored voting rights to 1.4 million people in that state who were previously subjected to lifetime disenfranchisement for a felony conviction. Within the last year, states as varied as Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico, Kentucky and Louisiana – to name a few – have moved to restore voting rights or reduce registration barriers for people with criminal records.

California has already emerged as a national leader in passing major criminal justice reforms, including reforms to address prison overcrowding and other measures to put the war on drugs behind us. Law enforcement and prosecutors in the Golden State are supporting these reforms because we recognize that public safety benefits from community restoration, rather than deprivation and social isolation. But while California pioneered many smart-on-crime policies that have been duplicated across the country because they enhance safety, equity and justice, we’ve fallen behind much of the country in our efforts to restore voting rights.

Opinion

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow people to vote while they’re re-entering their communities after a prison term. Most recently, Nevada and Colorado restored the vote to people on parole as of July 1 of this year. Two states never removed voting rights due to a conviction in the first place.

In California, however, the state Constitution still prohibits those who are “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony” from voting.

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Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6 would restore voting rights

Richard Edmond-Vargas co-founded Initiate Justice, an organization working to pass ACA 6 and that works directly with people impacted by the criminal justice system. Richard also co-founded a self-transformation group for incarcerated young men that was recognized by the California state Assembly for its contributions to public safety and was featured in a CNN documentary. He worked as a firefighter and holds associate and bachelor’s degrees in business. Yet Richard is one of the roughly 50,000 Californians who cannot vote because he’s on parole. He accomplished all of this while in prison on a 10-year sentence he received for robbing two stores when he was 19 years old.

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“The community becomes our community,” Edmond-Vargas said.

Reconnecting this population with their communities gives them a stake in society. And restoring their right to vote helps create the strong connections they need to succeed.

In fact, civic engagement has been proven to help improve reentry outcomes. The American Probation and Parole Association recognized over a decade ago that “disenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of (formerly incarcerated people),” and called for the restoration of voting rights upon the completion of a sentence. This position is rooted in a practical law enforcement purpose, as research comparing felony disenfranchisement policies across the U.S. demonstrates that states with more restrictions on voting have significantly higher rates of recidivism.

It’s time to acknowledge that we are safest when we encourage civic participation from everyone in our communities, including our returning citizens. The state Assembly has the chance to pass ACA 6 and reaffirm California’s place as a leader in smart and effective criminal justice reform.

George Gascón is the district attorney for the city and county of San Francisco. David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, the former chief probation officer for Alameda County and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.
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