An estimated 89,000 formerly incarcerated Nevadans could immediately have their voting rights restored under proposed legislation.
Under the current process that allows people to petition the court to regain the right to vote, only 281 people had their rights restored between 1990 and 2011 according to the D.C.-based research group The Sentencing Project.
Holly Welborn, the policy director of the ACLU of Nevada, called the system an “illusory process.”
“We have a statute that says you can in fact petition a court, but it doesn’t spell out how you go about doing that,” she said. “That’s led to very low participation in the court order process. The Sentencing Project estimates that one-half of one percent of people had their rights restored through a court ordered process from 1990 to 2010.”
At the heart of Assembly Bill 431 is the looming question — if a person has served their prison sentence and are deemed eligible to be released, why prolong their punishment by denying them the right to participate in the democracy?
“If we’re going to say the punishment needs to fit the crime, then if they have been deemed safe to re-enter a community they should be able to fully enter that community,” said Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson. “We don’t have throwaway citizens. We believe in second chances. I think the spirit behind the existing law came from a period where we threw away citizens.”
During the session, lawmakers have presented robust criminal justice reform legislation that contends with Nevada’s incarceration rates by looking at who the state locks up, why they are behind bars and how long they stay. AB431, presented at the Assembly Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning, contends with the aftermath of incarceration and what happens when a person leaves prison.
“For folks who have made mistakes in their lives, the process is supposed to be about second chances and giving those folks an opportunity to come back into the community,” Frierson said. “When we have folks involved with the criminal justice system and expect them to reintegrate into society there is no better way to motivate someone to stick to the rules, to comply with societal norms, then allow them to participate in the electoral process.”
While The Sentencing Project estimates 4 percent of Nevadans are disenfranchised from voting because of a felony, the rate for African Americans is nearly 12 percent.
Frierson said the 2017 Legislature made some changes to the current system of restoring voting rights. Lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 181, which went into effect in January, that gave many leaving prison a chance to regain their rights. The caveat — it only applies two years after their release.
AB431 speeds up the process so it takes effect immediately following release and wouldn’t distinguish between those released from prison versus those on parole and probation. “If you’re out of prison, you can vote,” Frierson said. “If you’re not out of prison, you cant.”
Nevada’s efforts to address voter disenfranchisement among those leaving prison isn’t a new concept.
The Sentencing Project estimates more than 6 million people have been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction — which has lead many states to take action.
“In 2013, Delaware removed its five-year waiting period before those convicted of felony offenses got their right to vote,” Frierson said. “In 2016, Alabama eased their restoration process after offenders complete their sentence except for crimes of moral turpitude.”
More recently, Florida voters approved a ballot measure that would automatically restore the right to vote to 1.4 million people with felony convictions — though Republican lawmakers have been working to stymie the voter-approved amendment by placing limitations on voter restoration.
Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman also introduced Senate Bill 326, which is expected to be heard at the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, as additional legislation to restore the right to vote.
AB431 isn’t the only effort to deal with the aftermath of incarceration to receive overwhelming support. Assembly Bill 192, presented by Assemblyman William McCurdy March 20, aims to streamline the process for sealing criminal records once a certain crime, like smoking marijuana, is decriminalized.