Calif. Bucks National Trend in Felon Voting

     SACRAMENTO (CN) — Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed two bills vigorously opposed by law enforcement, allowing thousands of felons serving time in county jails to vote and reforming California’s gang database.
     Assembly Bill 2466 restores voting rights for people who were convicted of a felony but are not in a state or federal prison.
     Supporters, including Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, called Brown’s signing a momentous step against racial inequality. She noted that felony disenfranchisement laws have a much larger impact on minorities: Nearly 75 percent of California’s prison population is black, Latino or Asian.
     “Courts across the country are reversing overtly discriminatory voting laws,” Weber said in a statement. “But while Californians have tended to think such discrimination was other states’ problems, voters of color in our state have suffered new restrictions on their right to vote in recent years. I wrote AB 2466 because I want to send a message to the nation that California will not stand for discrimination in voting.”
     (A class action filed this week in Alabama claims that 7 percent of the state’s potential voters, and 15 percent of black voters, are disenfranchised by that state’s law.)
     Weber’s bill confirms and clarifies voting laws for inmates, after California’s 2011 realignment system that transferred low-level inmates 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 about whether people transferred to county jails can vote.
     Supporters say the bill clarifies once and for all who can and can’t vote in California after a criminal conviction, and encourages civic participation.
     “When we allow people to exercise their civic duty to vote, we reduce the chance that someone will re-offend and we make our communities safer,” said Lori Shellenberger, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
     The ACLU helped Weber push the bill, making it a major lobbying focus this legislative year.
     Law enforcement groups and Republicans fought AB 2466, saying it rewards inmates for criminal behavior.
     State Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, remained adamant after the signing that felons still serving sentences should not be allowed to vote. She said it could hurt California.
     “Close elections, especially at the local level, could now turn on a handful of ballots cast by people in jail. This new law is bad for democracy and will further erode trust in government,” Bates said in a statement.
     Brown signed another bill sponsored by Weber that requires law enforcement groups to notify people who are added to the state’s CalGang database, and allows them the chance to contest their inclusion.
     The Democratic governor said a recent state audit that blasted the law enforcement tool for violations of privacy and civil rights played a major role in his decision to sign Assembly Bill 2298.
     “The CalGang database serves a very important role in dealing with gang activity in California,” Brown said in a rare signing message. “That said, in light of the recent findings by the California State Auditor, I believe substantive improvement are clearly in order.”
     The August 190-page audit revealed that CalGang, which tracks more than 150,000 suspected gang members, has inadequate state oversight: Children younger than 1 have been entered into the database.
     “User agencies are tracking some people in CalGang without adequate justification, potentially violating their privacy rights. Further, by not reviewing information as required, CalGang’s governance and user agencies have diminished the system’s crime-fighting value,” the audit states.
     Weber’s bill requires that a person be removed from CalGang after three years if he or she is not convicted of a gang-related crime, and establishes a procedure to contest a listing in CalGang.

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