California Judge Restores Voting Rights of Some “Realigned” Offenders

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[Image courtesy of UCLA Digital Library]

More than two years ago, I wrote about California’s struggle to resolve the voting status of individuals who had been convicted of felonies but were being released to county jails as part of a court order to reduce prison overcrowding. Here’s what I said:

[C]ivil rights advocates filed suit in a California appellate court seeking to restore the voting rights of 85,000 felons.

Normally, these offenders would be ineligible to vote, given that California – like most states – has felon disenfranchisement laws on the books. But as the result of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision aimed at overcrowding, the Golden State is reducing its state prison population by transferring tens of thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails and tens of thousands more from state parole to county probation.

In December [2011], California’s Secretary of State sent county election offices a memorandum detailing how this “realignment”, as it is called, would affect the voting rights of the individuals involved. Basically, the memo says that almost nothing has changed with regards to felon voting rights; except in very limited circumstances (when the accused is convicted of a felony but required to serve time in a county jail as a condition of probation in lieu of a felony sentence) these individuals remain ineligible to vote.

Civil rights groups and the League of Women Voters, however, are filing suit to overturn this memorandum, citing language in the California Constitution that disqualifies individuals “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony” from voting. Plaintiffs’ argument is that realignment’s removal of individuals from state control – prison or parole – means that they are no longer “imprisoned” and thus eligible to vote.

This week, a state court judge ruled that the State’s memorandum improperly denied those individuals their voting rights. The Associated Press has more:

A judge ruled Wednesday that Secretary of State Debra Bowen erred by deciding that tens of thousands of criminals who are serving sentences under community supervision are ineligible to vote.

The ruling stemmed from the state’s three-year-old criminal justice realignment law, which is reducing overcrowding in state prisons by sentencing people convicted of less serious crimes to county jails or alternative treatment programs.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued on behalf of nearly 60,000 convicts who previously would have been ineligible to vote because they were on state parole.

Under realignment, however, they are now sentenced either to mandatory supervision or post-release community supervision. Bowen’s legal analysis said that was “functionally equivalent” to parole.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo disagreed.

“The court finds the secretary’s ‘functional equivalency’ analysis unsound and lacking legal support,” Grillo said in the ruling.

Grillo said three of the state’s appellate courts recently ruled in unrelated cases that community supervision is not parole. The Legislature has been silent on the issue.

It will be interesting to see how corrections and elections officials in California work together to identify individuals who have lost the franchise and get it restored. It is a statewide election year in California, with registration for the June 3 primary closing on May 19.

Still, the ruling is a potentially big deal for tens of thousands of former offenders and is likely to be closely watched in other states where large prison populations are an issue.

As I said way back in March 2012 … stay tuned!

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