By Nicole Jones
A lawsuit filed Wednesday by lawyers for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and two other nonprofits aims to protect the voting rights of thousands of convicted California felons.
Currently, convicted felons who are serving time in state prison or who are on parole cannot vote under California law. But the lawsuit, filed at the First District Court of Appeal, claims this does not apply to felons who serve their sentences in county jails. Last fall, California realigned the criminal justice system, transferring the custody of low-level felons to county supervision to help reduce overcrowding in state prisons.
In December, Secretary of State Debra Bowen sent a memorandum to local registrars that these Californians cannot vote, whether they are in state prison or in a county facility, because county supervision is equivalent to parole.
“If we can send people all the way to Afghanistan to fight for the rights of people to vote inside of a prison,” said Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, “it looks crazy to me that we would deny people the right to vote in the jail in Bakersfield or in the jail of San Diego.”
The groups argue that under the California Constitution and the precedence set in League of Women Voters v. McPherson, these citizens have the right to vote because they are not in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Before 1974, people convicted with felonies were excluded for life from voting. But that changed after voters passed Proposition 10, which amended the California Constitution to expand the voting rights of citizens with convictions. The initiative granted voting rights to all except those “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony.”
Jory Steele, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said voting rights is also about racial justice, adding that African Americans make up 6.2% of California’s population, and 29% of the prison population.
Steele said the case needs to be settled in time to ensure eligible voters meet the October registration deadline for the November 2012 election.