The California League of Women Voters and two other nonprofit groups asked a state appeals court in San Francisco Wednesday to rule that 85,000 low-level felony offenders who were placed in the state’s realignment program are entitled to vote.
The groups’ lawsuit concerns people who were convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual felonies and put in county jails or under county supervision rather than state prisons or parole as a result of the realignment enacted by the Legislature last fall.
The realignment was intended to reduce severe overcrowding in state prisons, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court order, and decrease recidivism by giving local communities a larger role in rehabilitation.
The California corrections department has estimated that by June 2013, realignment will have sent about 30,000 low-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons and placed another 55,000 under county supervision instead of state parole.
The lawsuit claims the California Constitution allows people in those categories to vote because it grants suffrage to all citizens except those “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony.”
The county jail and supervision provided under realignment do not qualify as state prison or parole, the lawsuit argues.
“Realignment now returns those California citizens to their communities. They have a constitutional right to vote,” attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in the lawsuit.
The chief defendant in the case is Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who sent county registrars a memo in December instructing them not to allow offenders in the realignment program to register to vote.
The memo reasoned that the jail sentences and county supervision were structurally equivalent to state prison and parole in the cases of convicted felons.
The lawsuit asks the Court of Appeal to invalidate that memo and order Bowen to allow the realigned offenders to vote. It also asks the court to act in time to enable the offenders to register by an Oct. 22 deadline for voting in the November general election.
“Time is of the essence,” the lawsuit says.
ACLU attorneys said they filed the suit directly in the appeals court because that court has the power to act swiftly. The panel has no deadline for acting on the case.
Bowen spokeswoman Shannan Velayas said the secretary of state’s office does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Scott McDonald, Santa Cruz County’s chief probation officer, said in statement released by the ACLU, “We are trying to intervene and hold offenders accountable, to ask them to step up to be productive, responsive citizens.
“Voting encourages literacy and positive civic engagement. It reinforces the goals of re-entry,” McDonald said.
In addition to Bowen, San Francisco Elections Department Director John Arntz is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The other plaintiffs, in addition to the League of Women Voters, are Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a subsidiary of that group called All of Us or None, and San Francisco jail inmate Alisha Coleman.
Until 1974, the California Constitution denied voting rights for life to people convicted of felonies. That year, state voters approved an amendment narrowing that exclusion to those who are in prison or on parole for felonies.
In 2006, the Court of Appeal issued a ruling clarifying that voting exclusion does not apply in cases where a judge has suspended the sentencing of a convicted felon and sent the offender to county jail as a condition of probation.
The lawsuit contends that similar reasoning should extend to the situation of realigned offenders.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News