By Danielle Armbruster / For The Herald
As assistant secretary for the Reentry Division within the Washington State Department of Corrections, I have the unique honor of seeing individuals every day successfully reenter their communities after releasing from prison. My goal is to make sure that each releasing individual has the guidance, support and resources to transition successfully into a stable community environment. The people I work with are adapting to community life by finding housing, working jobs, paying taxes and contributing to their communities, like any citizen of our state.
Our hope is that each individual returning to their community will work to fundamentally change their life for the better and never reenter the prison system. Reducing the number of people returning to prison not only makes our neighborhoods safer, but also means that individuals are successfully transitioning home in the community. As a society, we all win when the people who are often most affected by the inequities of our society are able to move forward and become a contributing member of their community.
We know that when people feel connected to and engaged in their communities, they are less likely to return to prison. However, today, over 20,000 of our families, friends and neighbors on community supervision are not allowed to vote, an exercise that can empower a citizen to take interest in their community and the environment around them. Under current law, some people may lose this fundamental right for years and some may even lose it for the rest of their lives. Silencing our community members’ voices puts up an unnecessary and unacceptable barrier to their reentry and further undermines our democracy.
However, our state can right this wrong in 2021. The Washington state House took the incredible first step by passing House Bill 1078 in February, which would automatically restore voting rights to every citizen upon release from prison. Now, our State Senate must do the same.
We know that alienation caused by disenfranchisement does not help individuals return to their communities successfully. In fact, research shows that when individuals have a voice in their communities through voting, they are much less likely to return to the system. If the goal of our criminal legal system is to make our neighborhoods and communities safer and ensure people return to a law-abiding path, we should be encouraging this common civic engagement rather than restricting it. Furthermore, since our prison populations are impacted by the results of elections and are included in the census counts that help allocate funding, people who have successfully reentered their neighborhoods should have a say in how these funds are being used in their communities.
Restoring voting rights to every citizen in the community would also address the inequities that are amplified by the current policy. Although Black and Indigenous people only make up 6 percent of our state’s total population, they comprise more than 16 percent of the community supervised population. Allowing community members to vote while on community supervision will empower these underrepresented voices who are disproportionately silenced by the current law.
By passing House Bill 1078, our State Senate could improve the long-term success of our criminal legal system and return dignity and an opportunity for engagement to our families, friends, and neighbors. We at the Department of Corrections urge our Senators to make the right decision for our democracy and for the more than 25,000 Washingtonians who are seeking a political voice.
Danielle Armbruster is assistant secretary of the Reentry Division of the Washington State Department of Corrections.