California Paves a Path of Restoration for Parolees

by Andrew Talone


What you can do:

It is crucial to note that Proposition 17 did not just magically appear on the ballot. It took thousands of signatures and extreme dedication on the part of volunteers to collect said signatures to get this initiative in front of voters. And while it may not be legally possible to propose such a proposition in each state that does not already have such a policy, it is crucial that each person remain engaged in the struggle for human dignity. There are important steps that can be taken to educate oneself and champion policies similar to Proposition 17 to reduce the injustice of the criminal justice system. 

  1. If you live in one of the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Washington, West Virginia, write an email to your state legislators and governor (found at this link: https://www.commoncause.org/find-your-representative/change-your-address/) that urges them to introduce legislation that would restore the right to vote to all people convicted of a crime, either while they are still incarcerated or after their release from prison. 
  2. Donate to the ACLU so that it can continue to lobby for legislation that promotes civil rights:https://action.aclu.org/give/now?ms_aff=NAT&initms_aff=NAT&ms=web_horiz_nav_hp&initms=web_horiz_nav_hp&ms_chan=web&initms_chan=web

While the nation’s attention has been glued to the presidential race between Donald Trump and now President-Elect Joseph Biden R. Biden Jr. this election cycle, California’s state elections have focused on several high-profile propositions on the ballot, the most notable being Proposition 17. For those unfamiliar with California’s proposition system, also referred to as ballot initiatives, the state allows its electorate to directly vote on certain laws and state constitutional amendments. As a result of the system, Californians have a direct say in certain policy arenas, a procedure only 11 other states share [9].

Proposition 17 calls for an amendment to California’s constitution to restore the right to vote to individuals on parole for a felony. The initiative won by a current margin of 17.6%. With votes still being counted in the state, the unofficial tally in favor of the proposition rests at 8,141,466, or approximately 58.8% of the recorded votes [5]. As a result of its passage, Proposition 17 will see the restoration of voting rights to roughly 50,000 Californians serving parole sentences [6]. However, this measure is not a radical change in the trajectory of the state’s criminal justice system; California has a notable history of restoring enfranchisement of previously incarcerated individuals. In 1974, the state restored voting rights to those convicted of felonies who served their prison time as well as their parole4. More recently, the state legislature voted in September of 2016 to allow those in county jails to vote [7]. Thus, Proposition 17 can be seen as a continuation of California’s progressive approach to criminal justice and voting. With the passage of this proposition, California will join 16 other states who restore voting rights to citizens upon the completion of their incarceration [11]. Those 16 states do not include Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, which do not revoke a citizen’s right to vote if they are serving time in prison or parole. At the same, several states, Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky contrast the progressive view of these 16 states, as the three have laws in place which permanently revoke a citizen’s right to vote if they are convicted of a felony [12].

Yet, the expansion of voting rights to those who have been through and continue to

endure the criminal justice system has not been without sizable criticism. Opponents like Crime Victims United of California, an organization that advocates for strong punitive laws and seeks to protect crime victims and their families, cite injustice to victims of crime as a major reason to vote against the bill [2]. They argue that reinstating the right to vote for those on parole minimizes the justice victims receive through the stripping of the convicted individual’s political rights, ensuring punishment for the offense committed. Additionally, the proposition has been viewed by some opponents as permitting convicted individuals to vote before they fully repay their debt to society through their imprisonment and parole. Furthermore, the initiative’s opponents state that the basis of parole is to allow those convicted of a crime to prove they have been rehabilitated through prison and are not inclined to break any more laws. Thus, a restoration of a parolee’s rights before they can sufficiently prove their rehabilitation would pose a great risk to the law and order of California.

To the surprise of the initiative’s opposition, there has been a wide and popular outpour of support on the issue. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who created the proposition, was joined by other notable supporters, including Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, California governor Gavin Newsom, and the League of Women Voters. Proponents have cited that their support for the policy is widely attributed to its ability to promote and uphold the rights of each citizen and their dignity [1]. They believe that once a person has served their prison time and re-entered society, they should receive their right to vote back, just as they receive a large portion of their freedom and other rights upon their release from prison. On the issue of human dignity, the initiative’s supporters believe that the restoration of previously incarcerated individuals’ right to vote will help them overcome the stigma associated with the label of “criminal” by allowing them to engage in civic activities that their peers are permitted to enjoy. Likewise, some have raised the argument that civic engagement through voting and a sense of civic responsibility to one’s community will lead parolees to better behavior and prevent them from reoffending.

The margins by which Proposition 17 passed signify what a large portion of American society already knows to be true about the criminal justice system: it is severely outdated and implements harsh punitive measures on those who trespass the law. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and calls for criminal justice reform, society has rightly come to realize that it needs to reconsider its historically unjust treatment of those it punishes, a large majority of whom are Black and Brown people. This ballot initiative is a welcome step in the proper direction towards changing an institution that seeks to stigmatize and dehumanize people for life to a system that can help offenders find rehabilitation and purpose to positively impact their communities. However, the approval of this measure signifies more than the affirmation that those convicted of crimes are not a stain on society’s track record: it signifies a regression of the use of the criminal justice system as a tool to disenfranchise large swaths of the public, mainly Black citizens. This trend of disenfranchisement continued throughout the duration of the American criminal justice system’s history and reached its height with the peak of mass incarceration in the late 2000s [13]. Yet, recent initiatives like Proposition 17 have helped to begin the reversal of injustice in American institutions and restore the right to vote to those who have unjustly had one of their most basic rights as a citizen stolen from them. As society progresses in its conversations of racism, criminal justice, and the meaning of democracy, there is a promise of change that has the ability to correct historical wrongs. we should hope that it will see the error of its ways and correct its course. Through measures similar to Proposition 17, society can re-commit itself to embracing our democracy’s sacred belief in the vote and equality of all persons.


Works Cited:

[1] California Proposition 17: Allow parolees to vote

[2] Proposition 17

[3] Text of Proposed Laws

[4] Proposition 17 and the History of Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated Californians

[5] California Proposition 17 Election Results: Give Vote to Felons on Parole

[6] Prop. 17 approved in 2020 California election

[7] Felons in County Jails to be Allowed to Vote in California Elections

[8] Ballot Initiatives

[9] Chart of the Initiative States

[10] The Racist Roots of Denying Incarcerated People Their Right to Vote

[11] Felon Voting Rights 

[12] Felony Disenfranchisement Laws (Map) 

[13] The History of Mass Incarceration

Photo credit: https://www.communitynews.net/home/vermont-prisoners-casting-slightly-fewer-ballots-than-usual-this-election