Sacramento: Let Felons Vote in Jail

Debra J. Saunders
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Posted: Jun 02, 2016 12:01 AM
Sacramento: Let Felons Vote in Jail

California lawmakers seem intent on making Sacramento the place where reasonable reforms, much like runaway trains, jump the tracks. In that no-speed-limit spirit Tuesday, the California Assembly voted 41-37 to allow convicted felons to vote in jail. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If Assembly Bill 2466 becomes law, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 50,000 adults will be able to vote behind bars. The state doesn't trust these people on the streets, but they are welcome in the voting booth.

When individuals commit crimes that endanger public safety, they forfeit their civil rights upon conviction. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that the concept of "civil death" goes back to the Greeks and Romans. In some states -- Florida, Iowa -- convicted felons are permanently disenfranchised. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently made news by suspending permanent disenfranchisement by temporary order. No need for that in California. In 1976, voters amended the state constitution to end the permanent disenfranchisement of felons. The California Constitution now reads: The Legislature "shall provide for the disqualification of electors while mentally incompetent or imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony."

With such clear language, you would think that a measure to allow felons to vote behind bars would first have to go before voters as a constitutional amendment. But voters get no say thanks to an unholy alliance of California politicians, California courts and the ACLU. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Public Safety Realignment Act, which mandated that low-level felons serve their sentences not in state prisons but in county jails or under county supervision. It was Brown's clever way of alleviating state prison overcrowding by moving felons to largely overcrowded jails.

In the county system, "it's not called parole anymore," explained Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, who, like every other Republican member of the Assembly, voted against AB 2466. So in 2014, the ACLU filed a lawsuit that argued that felons serving "mandatory supervision" or "post-release community supervision" should be allowed to vote. "That's how they're playing semantics," Melendez told me. An Alameda County Superior Court judge obliged with a ruling that felons on county parole have "the same right to register to vote and to vote as all other otherwise eligible persons." Then-Secretary of State Debra Bowen had fought the ACLU. Her successor, Alex Padilla, dropped opposition and presto -- some 40,000 felons in county probation systems were eligible to vote.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat, still was not satisfied. Her AB 2466 would extend voting rights to felons in county jails because they are not called prisons. The legislation "defines 'imprisoned' to mean currently serving a state or federal prison sentence." She told the Assembly her bill would not change the penal code but simply serve to "clarify" the law and its "ambiguous terms of imprisonment."

Melendez noted, "They've exploited the language in the code to suit their own needs."

If Sacramento Democrats get away with this chicanery, what's to stop them from renaming prisons -- "big jails," perhaps -- so all felons can vote?

"Felons sacrifice their right to vote," observed Cory Salzillo of the California State Sheriffs' Association. They made a choice; it has consequences.

Will AB 2466 pass in the California Senate? Hint: In 2014, three state senators -- more than 10 percent of the Democratic caucus -- were charged with felonies. The state Democratic Party owns Sacramento, and it's still not enough. Democratic lawmakers must look at jail and think they hit the jackpot -- a captive audience of kindred spirits. No one's perfect. It would be immoral to disenfranchise these potential supporters. No opportunity for abuse there.