Members of the grassroots group All of Us or None (AOUON), in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union stood in front of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles Saturday to inform families and friends that people with past convictions are eligible to vote.
Members of AOUON, who also signed up people for voter registration, said that many ex-offenders are not aware that they are eligible to vote after they complete parole.
And parolees make up a sizable group in Southern California. According to statistics supplied by the grassroots organization, 45,000 ex-felons return to Los Angeles County each year.
“We wanted to inform the ex-felons of their voting rights because there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about who has the right to vote,” said Melissa Burch, director of programs and policy at A New Way of Life Re-entry Project that coordinates the All of Us or None project. “Many former parolees think that if they have a felony conviction, they no longer have the right to vote. In fact, people who are on probation have the right to vote in California as well as most people serving time in the county jails.”
Organizers said it is especially important to get the word out since the November 4th election is just months away and two important measures-Proposition 6 and Proposition 9-could directly affect ex-offenders.
“Proposition 6, also called the Safe Neighborhood Act, is a criminal justice bill stating that any young person 14-years-old or older who is charged with a gang related felony will be tried as an adult and have permanent felony convictions on their record. The bill will also require background checks for anyone living in Section 8 housing. If passed, the bill could make it difficult for people who have past convictions to be eligible,” said Burch.
Burch added that Proposition 9, called the Victim’s Rights Bill, will make it more difficult for people to be granted parole if it passes. “We already have the toughest parole system in the country. More than 95% are regularly denied,” Burch pointed out. “If you are denied parole, you’ll have to wait 15 years before you get another chance to go before the parole board.”
Proposition 5 will also appear on the ballot, which will provide moneys for drug treatment and rehabilitation, crucial measures for communities impacted by the criminal justice system.
As they handed out voting and ballot initiatives information, Susan Burton, executive director of A New Way of Life and a co-founder of All of Us or None, asked a woman formerly incarcerated if she was on parole. “She said, ‘No, I’ve been off parole for eight years, but after I left prison, they told me I couldn’t vote.’ I told her that she could vote and she was very surprised. That’s why we’re trying to get the word out. Despite past convictions, ex-felons can reclaim the right to vote, which is one aspect of restoring their civil rights.”
Burton herself said that she was a victim of misinformation as an ex-offender. “I remember as a prisoner being told I couldn’t vote,” said Burch. “I was never told that my voting rights were restored after I finished parole.”
“We served our time and the punishment should end,” said Burton. “We need to step up and address the barriers so that we can stop being punished and get our lives back,” she said.
Asked where she would like to see moneys allocated for ex-parolees, Burton didn’t hesitate. “We know prisons don’t work,” observed Burton, who added that 53,000 prison beds are slated to be built in Los Angeles County within the next several years. “We need community, intervention and prevention programs, schools, training, rehabilitation, and arts programs,” she pointed out.