SACRAMENTO (AP) — Voting and civil liberties groups sued Secretary of State Debra Bowen on Tuesday over a decision she made in 2011 that said tens of thousands of criminals who are serving their sentences under community supervision are ineligible to vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and other groups filed the lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of nearly 60,000 convicts who are sentenced either to mandatory supervision or post-release community supervision.
It’s the second lawsuit challenging Bowen’s interpretation of the 2011 criminal justice realignment law, which is designed to ease overcrowding in state prisons by sentencing those convicted of less serious crimes to county jails or alternative treatment programs.
The first lawsuit included those serving time in county jails and sought an expedited hearing from the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco. It would have allowed locally incarcerated felons to vote in the June 2012 primary election.
The initial attempt died when both the state appellate court and the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, without comment.
As a result, “the Secretary of State’s reading of the law stands,” Bowen spokeswoman Nicole Winger said in an email.
Winger said she could not comment further on pending litigation.
Both lawsuits argue that state law prohibits voting only by people who are in state prison or on parole. California already allows voting by those on county-supervised probation.
The latest lawsuit contends that the two new forms of community supervision were intended “as innovative community-based alternatives to parole,” with alternatives emphasized in italics. Felons under those programs are supervised by county employees, not state parole agents.
The 2011 memo written by Bowen’s chief legal counsel to county elections officials said it does not matter if felons’ supervision “is labeled something other than ‘parole.’ ”
The lawsuit says Bowen’s decision undermines the intent of the realignment law, which was pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown in response to federal court orders. The law also encourages rehabilitation, leading the plaintiffs to say in their lawsuit that participating in society by voting should be a part of that effort.
They also say Bowen issued the policy without going through proper legal procedures.
Several of the groups were plaintiffs in both lawsuits, including the nonprofit Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and its affiliated voter-education program called All of Us or None.
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