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Right to vote sought for California inmates transferred to jails

March 7, 2012 |  3:27 pm

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The League of Women Voters and prisoners-rights organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday against California Secretary of State Debra Bowen seeking to restore the voting rights of citizens convicted of felonies but sent to county jails under the state's controversial realignment program.

In October, California  began to reroute people convicted of most nonviolent felonies to county jails and probation departments to clear out its overcrowded prisons. The plan, proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown and passed by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature, was a response to a federal court order that California lower its prison population. It's been criticized by Republicans and some law enforcement officials for straining local jails and causing the early release of some criminals.

But, the lawsuit contends that realignment should also enable tens of thousands of new convicts to vote. The state bars prison inmates and paroled felons from voting, but not convicted felons in county jails or on probation, the lawsuit contends.

"The refusal to allow individuals convicted of low-level offenses not in the custody of [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to register violates their fundamental right to vote, as secured by the Constitution and the elections code," the lawsuit contends.

Bowen's office issued an opinion in December that felons sent to county jails under realignment should not be registered to vote. It wrote that lawmakers had not intended to expand access to voting when they approved the new system and said there is no legal difference between state and county lockups.

The lawsuit was filed directly to the state's Court of Appeal in San Francisco to expedite a trial before the Oct. 22 registration deadline for voting in this year's elections. It also cites a 2006 ruling by that court that inmates sent to county jails as part of their felony probation are allowed to vote.

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-Nicholas Riccardi in Sacramento

Photo: Archbishop Jose Gomez celebrates Mass with inmates in Los Angeles County jail on Christmas Day. A Credit: Arkasha Stevenson/Los Angeles Times

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