DENVER (CN) – A Colorado bill encouraging 10,000 parolees to vote passed the House Committee on State, Veterans and Military Affairs on Thursday.
The Voter Registration Individuals Criminal Justice Act, which passed with a 4-3 vote and had bi-partisan sponsorship, would pre-register parolees so they would automatically be able to vote upon completion of their sentences. Parole officers would inform the parolees of their voting rights and put to rest an urban myth that prior offenders can’t participate in state elections.
Bill sponsor, Representative Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, told the committee that he regularly encounters people while campaigning door-to-door who wrongly believe prior felony convictions prevent them from voting.
A proponent of restorative justice, Lee has described the United States as “the Incarceration Nation.”
“Colorado is not an exception to this pattern,” he said on his website. “We are incarcerating people at increasing rates, and then releasing them un-rehabilitated, unrepentant and unprepared to rejoin our communities.”
Representative Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said what sold him on the bill was that it calls those who have served their sentences back into the fold. He also liked that it helped maintain a clean voter roll and sponsored education.
“I think if we believe in a rehabilitative system of justice, we should strive for reintegration … when we have people who have paid their debt to society back on the voter roll, they have a vested interest in the community,” McKean said at Thursday’s committee meeting.
More than 100,000 Colorado residents are involved in the criminal justice system on a daily basis. As the state prison population increases, the number of annual parolees is expected to grow from 8,286 to 10,104 by 2024, according to a report released by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice.
Colorado’s motor-voter law automatically registers drivers to vote when they get their licenses, unless they opt out. Colorado law prohibits individuals from voting while on parole, but they may do so as soon as their parole has ended. Since a gap remains between their last visit with their parole officers and their release by the Department of Corrections, some assume they are already registered to vote while others assume they are ineligible.
This bill would require the Department of Corrections to provide the Secretary of State with a monthly report of individuals released from parole so their status could be automatically updated.
Colorado Representative Timothy Leonard, R-Evergreen, who voted against the bill likened it to babysitting rather than reintegrating. He suggested handing out brochures to parolees explaining their rights instead.
Still, others believe the bill can have more than a symbolic impact.
“It’s their constitutional right if they are eligible, and it is their civil right if they are eligible,” Justin Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said in an interview with Courthouse News. “There’s a body of research that highlights that individuals who are justice-involved who are reentering community, that get the restoration of their voting rights and actively participate in voting, is one of the strategies to reduce recidivism. … Just their civic participation … is vitally important for refranchising people in participating in democracy.”
The coalition advised the legislation.
There is no way of knowing how many people participate in elections—or chose not to—following the completion of a criminal sentence. Still, Cooper said, “I know they are essential to our state and our voting engagement.”
While the bill would aim to begin pre-registering parolees in July 2019, Cooper stressed the importance of eligible voters participating in this election season. In addition to the gubernatorial race, seats in the U.S. House, the state house and senate, the state supreme court, and the municipal government are up.
The House Committee on State, Veterans and Military Affairs also unanimously passed a resolution to put a measure on the 2018 election ballot to repeal constitutional language allowing criminals to be punished with slavery and indentured servitude.
Lee McNeil, a leader for community organizing group Together Colorado, called it “ancient and immoral language.”
McNeil, whose great-grandparents were slaves, testified in support of the bill alongside Pastor Caitlin Trussell, a great-granddaughter of slave owners.
A similar measure was included on the 2016 ballot, but its sponsors Representatives Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, and Joseph Salazar, D-Thornton, attribute the loss to ambiguous wording on the ballot.