Formerly incarcerated people would automatically regain their right to vote if a proposed bill in the Washington State Legislature is approved.
Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), the first formerly incarcerated person to serve in the Legislature, testified in favor of HB 1078 Jan. 14 and said earning her right to vote helped her engage with and serve her community.
“This is really about reentry. It’s not about the punishment. The punishment has been taken into consideration during the prosecution,” she said.
Simmons was sentenced to 20 months in prison for possessing and selling drugs and unlawful possession of a firearm. A former nurse, she said she stole drugs and sold them to support her habit. Once out of prison, she returned to school, earning a law degree from Seattle University. At first, the Washington State Bar Association barred her from practicing as an attorney, but she challenged that decision in the Washington Supreme Court and won.
Simmons’ push for voting rights has support from across the aisle. Republican Rep. Jesse Young from Gig Harbor co-sponsored the bill and testified about his experience with people who needed a “second chance.”
“I see this specifically as, what do we do to make sure that people are focused positively about reengaging in life?” Young said.
No member of the public testified against the bill, but two committee members, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) and Rep. Jenny Graham (R-Spokane), wondered aloud whether there could be negative impacts.
Walsh said the public risk impact of voter restoration for convicted felons was non-direct, but also “nonzero,” and Graham said victims of violent crimes and their families deserve restitution from people who committed crimes to cause deliberate harm.
Currently, people coming out of jail and prison automatically regain voting rights after they are released from state supervision, but people still under community custody, a system similar to parole, often lack adequate resources to know about their options in regaining voting rights, said Jaime Hawk, the legal strategy director at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington chapter.
“We need a simple and clear rule that will be easy to administer, that everyone understands, and will facilitate the successful reintegration of thousands of community members around the state,” Hawk said.
Sahar Fathi, policy director at the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, expressed support for the bill by saying the policy would work for historically marginalized groups.
“Not addressing the felony disenfranchisement will continue to exacerbate the real systemic consequences that already exist for African-Americans and other communities of color by disproportionately limiting their right to vote,” Fathi said.
Patricia Whitefoot, a member of the Yakama Nation, echoed this sentiment.
“Sadly this legislation is only one step toward addressing systemic racism and the disproportionate rate of convictions on people of color and tribal citizens,” she said.
Kurtis Robinson, executive director at I Did the Time, a political advocacy group for people convicted of crimes, said this bill would address double standards that exist in the sentencing process.
“We cannot ignore the racialized and dehumanizing patterns of our criminal justice system, and the disproportionate barriers to reentry that represent itself in America and in our system today,” Robinson said.
Testimony on this bill, HB 1078, was held before the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee Jan. 14. The bill is scheduled for an executive session on Jan. 21.