Bill to Let Some Felons Vote Clears California Senate

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The California Legislature on Tuesday cleared a criminal justice proposal to restore voting rights to low-level felons who served sentences in county jails because of prison overcrowding.
     Assembly Bill 2466 heads to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for final approval, and if passed would restore the right to vote for individuals who were convicted of a felony but are not currently imprisoned in state or federal prison or on parole.
     Supporters say the bill is critical in combating racial inequality and helps secure voting rights for thousands of incarcerated minorities. Nearly 75 percent of California’s prison population is black, Latino or Asian.
     The bill’s author, Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said Californians often fail to recognize the disparate impact that felony disenfranchisement laws have on minority voters.
     “I wrote AB 2466 because I want to send a message to the nation that California will not stand for discrimination in voting,” Weber said in a statement.
     In 2011, California implemented a controversial realignment system that shifted many low-level inmates from prison into one of three categories: mandatory supervision, post-release community service and county jails. While felons released into the first two categories have been allowed to vote, realignment caused confusion over whether those transferred to county jails also had a right to vote.
     Weber’s proposal garnered the support of California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Alex Padilla. The American Civil Liberties Union of California also made AB 2466 one of its main lobbying priorities this year.
     Lori Shellenberger, director with the ACLU of California, said the state Senate’s support for AB 2466 was a “vote for public safety.”
     “When we allow people to exercise their civic duty to participate in our elections we reduce their chances of reoffending and make our communities safer,” Shellenberger said in a statement.
     The ACLU has been at the center of the debate over whether felons released into the new realignment programs had a constitutionally protected right to vote. Former Secretary of State Debra Bowen initially classified the transferred inmates as essentially state parolees, which are not allowed to vote.
     The ACLU and civil rights groups challenged Bowen’s decision and in 2014 a state judge ruled that felons released into community supervision programs shouldn’t be classified as parolees, reinstating their right to vote.
     Weber says that AB 2466 clarifies the 2014 ruling and creates uniform treatment for each realignment category.
     Law enforcement groups uniformly opposed AB 2466, as did Senate Republicans. The reform bill passed without a Republican vote.
     Opponents contend giving voting rights to some felons is rewarding them for illegal activity. State Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego, said the bill should contain certain behavioral guidelines that individuals must meet before being allowed to vote.
     “This is the cherry on the cake that they’re going to get without ever working to redeem themselves,” Anderson argued ahead of the vote. “The right to vote is not a way to rehabilitate people.”
     Weber’s bill likely has the support of Gov. Brown, an outspoken advocate of criminal justice reforms.
     Brown is leading a comprehensive sentencing reform ballot initiative that increases parole consideration for nonviolent inmates. He has acknowledged that fixed-term sentencing laws he passed 40 years ago came with “unintended consequences,” and that his current proposal will alleviate California’s notorious prison overcrowding.
     Brown has until Sept. 30 to act on AB 2466.

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