Bill promotes automatic right to vote for people released from prison | 2021 Legislative Session

People under community custody currently can’t register

Sydney Brown | Washington State Journal
Posted 1/15/21

OLYMPIA - Formerly incarcerated people would automatically regain their right to vote if a proposed bill in the Washington State Legislature is approved.

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), the …

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Bill promotes automatic right to vote for people released from prison | 2021 Legislative Session

People under community custody currently can’t register

Posted

OLYMPIA - Formerly incarcerated people would automatically regain their right to vote if a proposed bill in the Washington State Legislature is approved.

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), the first formerly incarcerated person to serve in the Legislature, testified in favor of HB 1078 Jan. 14 and said earning her right to vote helped her engage with and serve her community.

“This is really about reentry. It's not about the punishment. The punishment has been taken into consideration during the prosecution,” she said.

Simmons was sentenced to 20 months in prison for possessing and selling drugs and unlawful possession of a firearm. A former nurse, she said she stole drugs and sold them to support her habit. Once out of prison, she returned to school, earning a law degree from Seattle University. At first, the Washington State Bar Association barred her from practicing as an attorney, but she challenged that decision in the Washington Supreme Court and won.

Simmons’ push for voting rights has support from across the aisle. Republican Rep. Jesse Young from Gig Harbor co-sponsored the bill and testified about his experience with people who needed a “second chance.”

“I see this specifically as, what do we do to make sure that people are focused positively about reengaging in life?” Young said.

No member of the public testified against the bill, but two committee members, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) and Rep. Jenny Graham (R-Spokane), wondered aloud whether there could be negative impacts.

Walsh said the public risk impact of voter restoration for convicted felons was nondirect, but also “nonzero,” and Graham said victims of violent crimes and their families deserve restitution from people who committed crimes to cause deliberate harm.

Currently, people coming out of jail and prison automatically regain voting rights after they are released from state supervision, but people still under community custody, a system similar to parole, often lack adequate resources to know about their options in regaining voting rights, said Jaime Hawk, the legal strategy director at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington chapter.

“We need a simple and clear rule that will be easy to administer, that everyone understands, and will facilitate the successful reintegration of thousands of community members around the state,” Hawk said.

Sahar Fathi, policy director at the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, expressed support for the bill by saying the policy would work for historically marginalized groups.

“Not addressing the felony disenfranchisement will continue to exacerbate the real systemic consequences that already exist for African-Americans and other communities of color by disproportionately limiting their right to vote,” Fathi said.

Patricia Whitefoot, a member of the Yakama Nation, echoed the sentiment.

“Sadly this legislation is only one step toward addressing systemic racism and the disproportionate rate of convictions on people of color and tribal citizens,” she said.

Kurtis Robinson, executive director at I Did the Time, a political advocacy group for people convicted of crimes, said this bill would address double standards that exist in the sentencing process.

“We cannot ignore the racialized and dehumanizing patterns of our criminal justice system, and the disproportionate barriers to reentry that represent itself in America and in our system today,” Robinson said.

Testimony on this bill, HB 1078, was held before the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee Jan. 14. 

The bill is scheduled for an executive session Jan. 21.

Sydney Brown is a reporter with the Washington State Journal. The Washington State Journal is a nonprofit news website managed by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Learn more at wastatejournal.org.

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Kevin

Wonderful Legislation. Glad to see our lawmakers working in a bipartisan fashion on this important issue!

Saturday, January 16
Larry Kallenberger

Amen!! Better late than never and this is far too late. . So many million lives hurt by the war on drugs. Should have been called off following Reagan’s sale of arms to the contras and the drug lords that supported them. Arrest and imprison people of color and young white kids while we play footsie with dictators and Central American right wing militia. Just say no to the decades long war. The US boasts 4% of the world population but over 20% of the worlds prison population. Decry the absence of fathers at home in the black community while we cause their absence by imprisoning them. Have the CIA flood black neighborhoods with cocaine so that anti communists propped up by the US will control their countries on our behalf. That is the history behind the war on drugs and the inherent hypocrisy and fear mongering that is the wars result. White men flop the tail of their dinosaur like tail one last time before the world becomes multi hued forever. This is the very thing that causes white nationalists to fight for the undeserved advantage of long held cultural superiority over men who are stronger and faster and just as intelligent as they are. Time to let dinosaurs die so that everyone else can live and breathe deeply!

Wednesday, January 20