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Restore the Right to Right Past Wrongs

By Nicola Bucci

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In 1976, when Jerry Brown became governor of California for the first time, his mindset about prison reform was completely different than it is today. The younger Brown believed “that rehabilitation was a failed experiment under the state’s indeterminate sentencing laws (ISL).” He believed that rehabilitating and returning a person to society after of a felony conviction was not possible. He decided that justice was better served by enacting Senate Bill 42, or the determinate sentencing law (DSL), effective July 7, 1977. In 1977, the California prison population was 20,000 with 12 prisons. In 2009, the population was approximately 173,000 with a total of 33 prisons.

Today, Governor Brown realizes the magnitude of his errors and has begun to dismantle them through prison realignment laws, including Assembly Bill 109 (2009) and Proposition 57 (2016). The most progressive effort is aimed at amending the 2017 Penal Code, subsection 1170 (A)(B) to include references to community justice and restorative justice in addition to retributive justice. These alternative forms of justice are unconventional for California, let alone the rest of the nation, and are more likely to reduce recidivism. For instance, when you provide a marginalized person with job skills, vocational opportunities, hygiene, discipline, counseling, healthcare, mental health, and cognitive-behavioral treatment through self-help programs, you promote positive citizenship. Despite these commendable efforts at reform, California’s lawmakers continue to deprive prisoners of their fundamental right to vote.

Allowing inmates to vote, in accordance with the model of returning citizens, will have a number of positive effects. It will keep them connected to their communities, which will help citizens outside the prison system because many of those communities are already marginalized. Giving incarcerated individuals the right to vote will also reinforce these individuals’ self-worth and thus promote the positive habits required for rehabilitation.

Indeed, the effects of being excluded were demonstrated in a poll conducted in early 2018 at San Quentin State Prison. Out of nearly 4,000 inmates housed at the prison, SQ Radio found only one inmate who had actually voted while in Solano County Jail and they coined him the “white unicorn” because of how few inmates had previously voted, particularly while held in jail where—until sentenced and incarcerated in a prison—they still had that right. I was that unicorn, and I did not understand its significance until recently when I saw how few of my fellow incarcerated individuals had ever voted. That absentee ballot was the first vote I had ever cast, and I did so knowing that I would lose that right if convicted. After I was convicted and lost the right to vote, I felt small, especially during the next presidential elections.

The sting of losing my voting rights has been all the more painful for two reasons. First, I remember the feeling of casting my first ballot; I felt empowered because I had a political voice. Today, I cannot vote. I feel I no longer have a voice. Before losing my right to vote, I served my country in the United States Navy. I received a service-connected honorable discharge after returning from my deployment during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Even though I’d risked my life as a foreign war veteran, when no absentee ballot arrived during the 2012 or 2016 elections, I felt that I and my earlier service no longer mattered to society. There should be a voting policy created for U.S. veterans of foreign wars. When individuals put their lives on the line in a time of war, that should count for something, especially when it comes to voting on a local or national level.

My disenfranchisement had an adverse effect on my rehabilitative process. Not being able to vote made me feel low self-worth, public esteem, and a lack of empowerment. It undermined my goal of developing the positive citizenship of a restorative justice approach. The lawmakers whose declared aim is rehabilitation must realize that disenfranchisement is an obstacle in the path of this goal.