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California Prison Realignment Complicates Voting Rights For Felons

Aired 2/5/14 on KPBS News.

The state's prison realignment effort has drawn up a complicated matrix of detention options for felons in California, and with it a lot of confusion about which ones can vote.

California's prison realignment effort has drawn up a complicated matrix of detention options for felons, and with it a lot of confusion about which ones can vote. It's the subject of a lawsuit alleging the state has unconstitutionally stripped nearly 60,000 Californians of their right to vote.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of California and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area filed the petition in Alameda County Superior Court on Tuesday. The suit is on behalf of All of Us or None, a civil rights group for people previously or currently incarcerated, the League of Women Voters of California and three individuals who cannot vote under new rules enacted in response to realignment.

The state constitution prohibits from voting people who are "imprisoned or on parole for conviction of a felony." The language was clear when offenders fell under two categories: the state's responsibility or a California county's responsibility.

But realignment has created a hybrid system, putting low-level felons who would have otherwise gone to prison under county supervision, through jail or probation.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen issued a memo in 2011 saying those in the new class of offenders can't vote. It's the same sentence; it's just happening in a different place, according to Bowen.

But ACLU attorney Michael Richer contends it is a different sentence — one that reflects the state's deliberate swing away from harsh sentencing.

"This directive really stands in the face of realignment's objectives," Richer said. "Realignment was intended to reject our old, failed policies of putting more and more people in prison, then on parole, violating these people and then cycling them back through the system."

Under realignment, felony offenders who do not have serious, violent or sex offenses serve their terms in county jails. Those finishing earlier prison sentences report to county probation officers instead of state parole officers. But the arrangement is not called "probation"; it's called "post-release community supervision."

In her 2011 memo, Bowen argued parole and PRCS are equivalent and points to sections of the realignment law in which the terminology seems to be interchangeable.

But voting rights advocates see the new supervision options “as innovative community-based alternatives to parole" and exempt from the constitution's exclusions.

"The [new] classification was aimed at trying to stop the recidivism that happens," said Trudy Schafer, a director at the League of Women Voters. "They're trying to keep people from recommitting crimes and get them involved in their community."

And Schafer said allowing those individuals to vote might actually help keep them from reoffending. Recent studies suggests there's a correlation between voting and reduced risk of recidivism.

"There are already a lot of hurdles that you face if you're reentering the community and being integrated into the community is a way of making it easier to get over those hurdles," Schafer said. "There's nothing better than having a say in what your community life is going to be like by voting."

More than 2,000 offenders in San Diego County are subject to the new voting rules.

A spokeswoman in the Secretary of State's office said Bowen would not comment on pending litigation. The California Supreme Court and the state appellate court declined to hear a similar case in 2012.

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