By The Herald Editorial Board
State lawmakers have tried in recent years to restore the voting rights of those who have completed prison terms but are denied the ability to vote because of a failure to make payments on fines or restitution, an attempt to use the leverage of that right to compel payment.
But the effectiveness of that leverage has never been proved, and increasingly, the opposite has been shown in recent studies that restoring voting rights can instead decrease recidivism by encouraging greater community participation among those formerly incarcerated.
It’s also shown in the stories of individuals, notably that of state Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who is the chief sponsor of this year’s legislation to remove unpaid financial obligations as a bar to voter registration and participation.
Simmons, who served a 30-month prison sentence for drug and theft convictions, was elected in November to her 23rd District seat, and is believed to be the first former felon to win election to the Legislature.
“From the Big House to the State House. … We do recover!” she tweeted the day after the election.
But that recovery — from Burger King to a Seattle University law degree — was slow. The former nurse’s wages from a fast-food job were garnished to pay her court fines. And her ability to vote and fully participate in her community required payment of all fines.
“It’s an honor to be here today,” she said at a January hearing regarding the legislation, “an honor that is directly tied to my ability to successfully reenter the community after my incarceration and become a voter again.”
Under the proposed legislation, House Bill 1078, following a felony conviction the right to vote would be restored to those who are not under 24-hour confinement by the state Department of Corrections. Voting rights could no longer be revoked for failure to pay outstanding fines or other financial obligations. Washington is one of only 18 states that requires completion of probation — and payment of fines — in order to have voting rights restored.
As with related legislation that seeks to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic fines, Simmons’ bill, which passed the House last week and now is under consideration by the Senate, seeks a different route toward rehabilitation than piling on difficulties for those who are attempting to set their lives right and become productive community members.
The legislation has broad support, including from the state Department of Corrections and the state Office of the Attorney General.
The legislation is aligned with the Department of Corrections’ mission to improve public safety by positively changing lives, said Danielle Armbruster, an official in the agency’s reentry division. The agency has an estimated 26,000 people in work release, monitoring and other community supervision programs who could see their right to vote restored through the legislation, she said.
“Creating pathways to restore voting rights helps formerly incarcerated individuals feel connected to the community and allows them to use their voice in the political process,” she said during the Jan. 14 hearing.
The bill would also work toward correcting inequitable disenfranchisement of those in the African American, Latino and other communities of color, said Sarah Fathi, policy director with the state AG’s office. The current law “serves to curb the voice and vote of many in the African American community,” she said. Blacks, as of 2020, represented 18 percent of the inmate population in the state, while accounting for only 4 percent of the state’s overall population.
Those numbers carry over, following release, to disproportionately deny the right to vote for those who remain in community supervision with outstanding fines.
Again, barring voting rights hasn’t been shown as effective in compelling people to pay their fines, much less find and keep jobs and participate in their communities. The opposite is true. One study, The Hill reported in 2019, found that former felons who voted were half as likely to re-offend during the three years after release from prison as those who didn’t vote.
Another study at the University of Pittsburgh in 2019 concluded that restoration of voting rights resulted in greater trust in government, law enforcement, the criminal justice system and respect for the rule of law, increasing “the very types of attitudes and behaviors that make crime — and thus recidivism — less likely.”
During floor debate before the House vote, opponents of the bill argued that payment of all legal obligations following release from custody should remain as a requirement in satisfying one’s debt to society.
“Beyond voting rights, first comes responsibility,” said state Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane. “When somebody makes a decision to harm or kill another individual, there is accountability that is due.”
Nothing in the legislation, however, erases the obligation of fines and restitution. And there are better ways of enabling and encouraging repayment of debts than denying the right to vote.
When someone is released from prison, the implied message is that society now trusts that person to resume his or her place in the community and continue to earn that trust by supporting themselves and their families and participating in civic life.
There are barriers and stigma enough for those making that transition, without denying them a basic right due all Americans.