Judge says ex-cons under supervision have the right to vote

An Alameda County judge has ruled that Secretary of State Debra Bowen erred when she told California election officials to forbid some 42,000 former prisoners and other felons from registering to vote.

Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo's decision Wednesday likely comes too late to permit former state inmates and others put under community supervision because of the state's prison overcrowding to register in time to vote in the state's primary elections.

The deadline to register for that election is May 19, and Grillo has given Bowen and civil rights lawyers for former inmates until late May to come up with a remedy. He'll hold his own hearing on those solutions June 4, the day after the primary.

The case centers on Gov. Jerry Brown's decision in 2011 to make room in the state's crowded prisons by creating new classes of offenders -- low-level felons who serve their sentences in county jail instead of state prison and felons released from prison who are supervised by county probation departments instead of state parole agents.

Under current California law, those who remain within the state prison system or under parole are ineligible to vote. Bowen took the position that community probation was "akin to parole" and carried the same civil rights restrictions.

However, Grillo cited rulings by other California judges who have found community supervision is distinct. In one case, for instance, a judge ruled that those on community supervision could not be charged parole revocation fees.

Grillo also noted that the legislative history of the prison shift "states that a Legislative goal was to reintroduce felons into the community, which is consistent with restoring their right to vote."

Bowen may yet appeal Grillo's order, which likely would trigger a stay keeping things as they are now.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which along with the League of Women Voters of California and other groups filed the lawsuit on behalf of three former state inmates, is hoping she does not.

"People who vote are less likely to commit crimes," said ACLU attorney Michael Risher. Encouraging them to register "is just good public policy." 

There was no immediate response from Bowen's office.