Convicted felons entitled to vote, court rules
Judge: Racial discrimination claims have merit
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
By LEVI PULKKINEN
In a move that could see Washington inmates voting from prison, a federal appeals court has thrown out the state’s restrictions on felon voting. Under state law, residents convicted of a felony currently lose the right to vote until they are released from custody and off of Department of Corrections supervision. Tuesday’s split ruling by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel puts those restrictions in doubt, as two of three judges reviewing the voting rights lawsuit found that the state restrictions unfairly penalize minorities.
Attorneys for six Washington state prisoners, Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote, “have demonstrated that police practices, searches, arrests, detention practices, and plea bargaining practices lead to a greater burden on minorities that cannot be explained in race-neutral ways.”
Joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the majority opinion, Tashima found that black and Latino Washingtonians faced arrest and prosecution at rates far higher than could be explained simply by increased criminal activity. Finding no “race neutral” explanation for the higher incarceration rates, the majority reversed a U.S. District Court decision and ruled in favor of the inmates.
“Although (the state) criticized the experts’ studies and the conclusions, the (plaintiffs’) reports, when objectively viewed, support a finding of racial discrimination in Washington’s criminal justice system,” Tashima said in the ruling.
“Given that uncontroverted showing,” he added, “in the words of the district court, there can be ‘no doubt that members of racial minorities have experienced discrimination in Washington’s criminal justice system.'”
Speaking on the ruling, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said the court’s decision came as a surprise, in part because three circuit court panels elsewhere in the country came to opposite conclusions while reviewing similar cases. Reed said he believes the state prohibition against prisoner voting remains appropriate.
“That’s part of the penalty,” Reed said. “A person loses their rights when they violate the rights of others by perpetrating a felony. … As long as when they get out they get a chance to rejoin society, that’s the important part.”
Reed said he supported a recent change in state law aimed at enabling felons returning to society to regain the vote. Under the new rules, felons no longer have to pay off their court-mandated fines before registering to vote. Filed 14 years ago, the suit named Reed’s office as a defendant as well as the Attorney General’s Office and the governor’s office. Reed said he expects to appeal the decision either to the U.S. Supreme Court or an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit.
Link to original article in SeatlePI