SACRAMENTO -- California's refusal to let former state prison inmates vote while they serve community probation terms is under challenge by civil rights groups.
On behalf of groups including the League of Women Voters of California, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and the San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
The Alameda County Superior Court lawsuit alleges Bowen wrongly told county election supervisors in 2011 that former state prisoners remain ineligible to vote until they finish their probation sentences.
California law prohibits those in prison and on state parole from voting. That law is silent about the rights of a new category of offender created by the state in 2011, when the Legislature decided non-violent prisoners would no longer go on parole but be released under the supervision of county probation departments.
"Voting is a civic duty and prohibiting people who are living in the community under these new forms of community supervision from participating in this critical part of our democracy serves no useful purpose," lawyers for the civil rights groups wrote in their lawsuit. Instead, they said, it "is likely to impede re-integration and rehabilitation into civil society."
There was no immediate response from Bowen's press office. A December 2011 legal memorandum by the state elections division's chief lawyer contends the voting restrictions do not change because post-prison release "is labeled something other than 'parole.' "
State corrections officials said some 63,000 prison felons since October 2011 have been released on community supervision.
They remain under supervision for up to three years, and after that, voting rights are automatically restored.