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Free the Vote: Prop 17 is One Step Forward

Wednesday, October 21, 2020
By Crispin Delgado and Varisa Tanti, Northern California Grantmakers

This November, Californian voters will consider Proposition 17, the “Free the Vote Act,” which seeks to restore the right to vote for Californians on parole. The passage of Proposition 17 would restore the voting rights for up to 50,000 parolees, including people who have undergone self-transformation and now hold community leadership roles advocating reform in the criminal justice system.

Niki Martinez, who was sentenced to 45 years in prison, was recently granted early parole, however, she still faces the stigma of being implicated with the criminal justice system. Despite her leadership in building community within the prison system and, when released, being a community advocate for alternatives to incarceration and simultaneously juggling four jobs, she still has no right to vote. Through Proposition 17, California’s practice of extending punishment for people who have completed their sentences can end. Instead, resources will focus on supporting healthy transitions back into communities by extending voting rights and empowering parolees to meaningfully contribute to social change and, thereby, disrupt recidivism.

Voting Rights for People Implicated in the Criminal Justice System

In 1974, Californian voters passed a measure that would allow people convicted of felonies to vote only after completing both their sentences and parole. In 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law allowing people in local jails to vote; however, people incarcerated in state prisons were excluded from this legislation.

Proposition 17 is part of a broader nationwide push to restore voting rights to people with criminal convictions. California would become one of 17 states to automatically restore felons’ voting rights after release. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia allow people to vote as soon as they’re released from prison, even while on parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The most recent expansion of voter rights for felons took place in Nevada, Colorado, New York, and Florida.

Punishment versus Parole: What’s the Difference?

When most people in state-run prisons are released, they are placed into structured reintegration supervision known as parole. Parole is not intended to be part of the punishment, but rather as a period of time when formerly incarcerated people transition back into free society. It is meant to create an accountability structure and provide parolees with the social support needed to successfully reintegrate into their communities.

Mass Incarceration and the Root of the Problem

The racist undertones of the “War on Drugs” and the “tough on crime” mentality have plagued Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities for decades. The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, with Black and Latinx populations being disproportionately targeted, charged, tried, and sentenced to serve jail and prison time, compared to their white counterparts. This leaves Black, Latinx, undocumented Californians, and many other families of color beholden to an overly harsh and unfair criminal justice system that has spanned generations and leaves these families unable to provide or build economic security for their households (CBPC). According to PPIC, while African-Americans only make up 5.6% of California adults, they make up 28.5% of California’s prison population and 26% of the parole population. The imprisonment rate for African American men is 4,236 per 100,000 people—ten times the imprisonment rate for white men, which is 422 per 100,000. For Latino men, the imprisonment rate is 1,016 per 100,000—2.4 times the imprisonment rate for white men. African American women are also overrepresented. Of the state’s 5,849 female prisoners, 25.9% are African American—however, they only make up 5.7% of the state’s population. African American women are imprisoned at a rate of 171 per 100,000—more than five times the imprisonment rate of white women, which is 30 per 100,000. Imprisonment rates for Latino women are 38 per 100,000 or 1.27 times the imprisonment rate of white women.

Given how disproportionate the numbers are, supporters of this initiative argue that the current law is discriminatory and a form of voter suppression. According to Prof. Dr. Maria Rendon from UC Irvine, “This new generation recognizes the institutional racism embedded in America’s law enforcement and criminal justice system is the same institutional racism that created and sustains unequal neighborhoods and schools that privilege whites and the affluent and disadvantage Blacks and Latinos.” Sen. Steve Bradford, D-Gardena (Los Angeles County), was recently quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article as saying “California’s prohibition was designed to disenfranchise Black and brown people, who are imprisoned and on parole at disproportionately high rates….We spend billions of dollars on our prison system with the intentions and promise of rehabilitating people,… yet, once they’re released, you still want to treat them like a common criminal.”

NCG’s Support for Proposition 17

NCG supports the passage of Proposition 17. This ballot measure aligns with NCG’s mission to advance equity and social justice in the region and NCG’s policy goal of advancing the rights of historically marginalized communities in Northern California. As a consortium of change leaders from multiple sectors, NCG can provide a platform to welcome new criminal justice reform partners, connect future collaborators, and help others build the stamina required to transform the justice system to be more racially equitable and just.

Every day, we are witnessing the urgent call to rethink the social institutions—such as the criminal justice system—that systematically discriminates against BIPOC communities. The passage of Proposition 17 is a first step in solidifying our commitment to dismantling the systems of oppression that have hurt BIPOC communities for far too long.

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