Californians Weigh Restoring Voting Rights to Parolees in Proposition 17
In California, parolees who have completed felony prison sentences are encouraged to re-integrate into their communities in every way except one. They can join support groups, work, pay rent, and pay taxes, but they cannot vote in elections. If Proposition 17 passes this November, that will change. The California Constitution will be amended, and California will join 19 other states that allow individuals convicted of felonies to vote while on parole. Only two states in the United States — Maine and Vermont — do not take voting rights away from people who were convicted of felonies, even while incarcerated.
Kelly Savage-Rodriguez is one of nearly 50,000 people in California who has been released from prison but cannot vote until her parole — a supervised period of time in a community — is complete. A bit over two years ago, Savage-Rodriguez’s Parole Board considered her to be a safe and productive member of society and released her from prison after 23 years of incarceration. Savage-Rodriguez believes she deserves the right to vote like everyone else and said that, “[it] shouldn’t be about what your crime was in the past; it should be about what kind of person you are today.”
State Senator Jim Nielsen sees it a little differently. According to The Sacramento Bee, Nielsen said, “Let’s talk a little about the universe we are dealing with here. They include murderers, voluntary manslaughter, rap[ists], sodomists. For those that commit the crimes, particularly the heinous crimes, part of their sentence is to complete the parole period.” Nielson, like many others, believes that an individual on parole has not yet demonstrated he or she are worth trusting yet.
The Election Integrity Project California, Inc. (EIPCa) shares the same view as Nielsen. According to a Senate Rules Committee bill analysis, EIPCA said, “A period of parole gives the former criminal powerful reminders of what true liberty is by withholding just enough of it to incentivize further appropriate behavior so as to earn the rights just beyond the fingertips.” This group also believes there is no evidence to support that voting gives parolees a “sense of participation and belonging.”
“To make a blanket comment or to judge any of [the parolees] to be less[er] than [others] is ignorant, it’s negligent,” said Kate Fielding-Metheny, who was off parole in March of this year after spending six years in prison. One of the first things she did (when she could) was register to vote, and even asked her parole officer to document on her discharge letter that she specifically could vote. Referring to the state of California, Fielding-Metheny said, “You’ve already convicted us. You’ve already told us we’re bad people. You already told us we have to go live in a cage. But, does that change our mind about social justice? I don’t think so.”
According to Fielding-Metheny, some of the most intelligent women she’s ever met are behind bars. She believes that even though mistakes were made, women can still have a mind and in prison they take classes and have researched discussions to continue to educate themselves. The vote coming from those currently or previously in prison is “unbelievably powerful,” said Fielding-Metheny.
Fielding-Metheny is one of many women who was charged with a non-violent crime. A capital punishment state, California has the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” felony law that requires repeat offenders to receive increased punishment with each felony conviction. A person’s third “strike” can land them with a 25-years-to-life prison sentence without the possibility of parole. A felony is not limited to violent crimes such as murder and rape; felonies can also include drug possession, robbery, and fraud.
The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world. On the other hand, several countries allow those convicted of crimes to still vote inside of prison, similar to Maine and Vermont. As of 2016, approximately 1 in every 40 voting-age adults is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony.
Prohibiting convicted felons from voting is called felony disenfranchisement and Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen are experts on the topic. According to their book, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, felony disenfranchisement laws were adopted by 38 states at the end of the 19th century. California led the way by writing felony disenfranchisement laws into the California Constitution in 1849 and originally did not support the 15th Amendment which allowed citizens to vote regardless of race.
By the year 2000, 48 states had a law related to felony voting restrictions. However, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while voting rights for individuals convicted of felonies is a state-by-state policy choice, in the past few decades, states are trending toward reinstating the right to vote for those individuals.
Proponents of Proposition 17 believe supporting and encouraging parolees to be a part of a community is important for proper rehabilitation. President Barack Obama voiced his support on the issue in a 2015 speech at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Conference. He said job applications should ban a checkbox asking former prisoners if they have been in prison and “if folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”
Sandra Johnson was released from prison in 2007 after being in and out for about 15 years. “I know that women didn’t get to vote and then I also know that because I am black, I know what my ancestors went through in order for me to vote,” said Johnson. She believes the “system and democracy” were built to intentionally lock people out and doesn’t understand the opposition’s restrictions. “People that are really trying to be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens and move away from incarceration … and do the right thing, want to vote … [and] have a voice,” said Johnson. “People that are out and not doing the right thing, they’re not trying to go vote.”
Savage-Rodriguez, Fielding-Metheny and Johnson work hard to be law-abiding citizens and broke old habits once they were released. Typically, parolees have an uphill battle awaiting them once they are released from prison, on top of being reminded they are “less than others” by not having voting rights. Savage-Rodriguez had trouble getting a P.O. Box without a voter registration card and Fielding-Metheny’s acquaintances were not provided with clear direction on meetings to attend or parole offices to visit upon release. Savage-Rodriguez, Fielding-Metheny and Johnson have joined organizations that help educate and support those newly released individuals, so they are set up for success to complete their parole.
“I have to remember that my choice to engage and be a part of this society is something I fought for this entire time,” said Savage-Rodriguez. “The ability to re-engage and be a part of society is something that is a blessing to me.” To these women, and many others, suffrage is a voice earned by being an American citizen.