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Returning Citizens: Know Your Rights

April 6, 2018

The Philadelphia Tribunal

True or false: Can you vote if you served time in jail or prison?

The answer: Ex-offenders or returning citizens, including those who have been convicted as felons, can vote once they have been released from prison.

People on probation and parole can also vote.

Others allowed to vote: People in jail and prison for a misdemeanor; people in jail waiting for trial; People who are on house arrest; and people who are on parole or probation and live in a halfway house or “community corrections center” can vote with an absentee ballot.

The only people who cannot vote are “people who are in prison or jail because of a felony conviction and who won’t be released before the election” and “people who have been convicted of violating Pennsylvania election laws within the past four years,” the ACLU-PA said.

Although they have the right to vote many are not exercising their rights according to Suave Gonzalez, an ex-offender who works to get other former inmates engaged in the political process.

After serving more than 31 years of a life sentence on a homicide charge, Gonzalez was released on Nov. 20, 2017. He was set free because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision that ruled sentencing juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional. Gonzalez, 48, had been in prison since he was 17 years old, according to a report by Tribune Correspondent Samaria Bailey.

“It was voters that got tired of seeing young kids being thrown in jail for life,” Gonzalez said. “They decided to use their power. If Black people and Hispanics would not have voted Barack Obama into the presidency, juvenile lifers would not be out of jail today. Obama [appointed] Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Kagan to the United States Supreme Court and those votes were the two votes we needed to give juvenile lifers a second chance, so that’s the power of voting today.”

When Gonzalez began his sentence at Graterford Correctional Facility, he “could not read … or write.” But he studied until he earned a bachelor’s degree and was working on a master’s by the time he left. In March, he began serving as executive director of the Nu-Stop Resource Center.

Today he serves the people of Kensington — helping men and women living with an opioid addiction, giving food to families looking for their next meal and helping people find jobs.

He also asks them to register to vote.

“I’m doing the same work I did in prison … mobilizing people to vote. It’s just on a different level and I get paid for it,” he said. “No one knows better than those who have been incarcerated for decades, the power of voting. But nobody’s influencing the people.”

Gonzalez and other organizers said there are not enough returning citizens voting.

“It’s people who have been home for 10, 15, 20 years and didn’t know they could vote. They never participated in the election process,” said Reuben Jones, executive director of Frontline Dads and a returning citizen who left prison in 2002.

“Some people think once you get convicted, you are barred from voting,” he said. “People are a lot more aware now [but] you’d still be surprised by how many people are not registered to vote, even if they are aware.”

The Philadelphia Reentry Coalition estimates that “around 25,000 people were released to Philadelphia annually between 2012 and 2015.” The coalition estimates that there are about 200,000 to 300,000 returning citizens living in the city, but they do not have statistics on returning citizens who are registered or who actually vote.

According to the city commissioner’s office Annual Report on Election and Voter Registration Activity, in the 2014 race for governor, state reps and congresspeople, “19 percent of the 1,029,049 voters who were eligible to vote in the primary election” voted and 37 percent of the 1,032,322 voters who were eligible to vote in the General Election” actually voted.

Ex-offenders should have a voice on what policies and programs are needed to prevent others from becoming part of the criminal justice system and how to improve their communities.

The formerly incarcerated are urged to know their voting rights and become full returning citizens by voting.

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