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New Mexico Bill Would Eradicate Felony Disenfranchisement, Arkansas Activists Take on 287(g), and More

In This Edition of the Political Report January 10, 2019:  New Mexico: New legislation would eliminate felony disenfranchisement Arkansas: Benton and Washington county activists organize against ICE’s 287(g) program Florida, Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas: The 2018 elections have consequences You can visit the Appeal: Political Report website to read our latest analyses of […]

In This Edition of the Political Report

January 10, 2019

  • New Mexico: New legislation would eliminate felony disenfranchisement

  • Arkansas: Benton and Washington county activists organize against ICE’s 287(g) program

  • Florida, Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas: The 2018 elections have consequences

You can visit the Appeal: Political Report website to read our latest analyses of the local politics of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.

New Mexico: New legislation would eradicate felony disenfranchisement

Voting rights were a core demand of the nationwide prison strike of 2018. “The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called ‘ex-felons’ must be counted,” strike organizers wrote in their list of 10 demands. “All voices count.”

In New Mexico, groups like Millions for Prisoners New Mexico and the state’s ACLU affiliate have since stepped up their organizing against felony disenfranchisement. State law currently disenfranchises individuals serving a felony sentence, including when they are incarcerated, on parole, and on probation. “Voting is a First Amendment right, it’s our voice,” Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners, told me. “It’s our voice in decisions that are being made that impact our lives and who represents us. These protections are so vital and important in recognition of just being human.”

In December, state Representative Gail Chasey, a Democrat from Albuquerque, introduced legislation (House Bill 57) that would eradicate felony disenfranchisement in New Mexico. If the bill becomes law,  New Mexico would join Maine and Vermont, the two states that do not disenfranchise people convicted of a felony and that enable people to vote while incarcerated.

Prior nationwide reforms have have chipped away at the disenfranchisement system rather than eliminating it altogether. A law that came into effect in Nevada on Jan. 1 reduced financial disparities in who is disenfranchised, but the state retains harsh laws even by national standards. And when Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York expanded the voting rights of people on parole last year, he also left many citizens disenfranchised in addition to creating layers of rules and restrictions that impede eligible individuals.

Can New Mexico break that incremental mold and provide a new model for ambitious reform?

Democrats won full control of the state government this month for the first time since 2010. They significantly strengthened their hold on the legislature, and Michelle Lujan Grisham replaced Susana Martinez, a Republican who vetoed numerous criminal justice reform bills, as governor. “The new makeup of the state could be a good opportunity to push the envelope and get meaningful change,” Barron Jones, the Smart Justice coordinator of the ACLU of New Mexico, told me.

But that does not mean that all Democrats are on board with Chasey’s bill, at least not yet. State Representative Daymon Ely, who is the vice chairperson of the House Committee on Local Government, Elections, Land Grants & Cultural Affairs, told me via email that he believed that New Mexico’s current system was inadequate. “I think the quicker we can get citizens back to full participation in our democracy the better,” he said. But he also indicated that he was undecided about what reform should look like. (Committee chairperson Miguel Garcia did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Speaker Brian Egolf.)

Guerrero argues that reform should not leave incarcerated people behind. “They are citizens, they pay taxes through their commissaries, they have families that love them, and the vast majority will return to their communities,” she said. “Just taking a small community that is on probation or parole and enfranchising them, I didn’t feel like that’s what the list of [strikers’] demands was asking for. I do a lot of organizing with people behind the wall, and that wouldn’t meet their demands.”

“[Disenfranchisement] laws are designed to oppress folks,” Jones concurred. Jones was himself disenfranchised after being convicted of a felony. “Until I got my voting rights, it left me a place of anomie, like I didn’t belong.”

Jones said that voting is a way for incarcerated individuals to prepare for their re-entry into the community. “The vast majority of the people will one day be released to rejoin society,” he said. “We believe it’s very important they have a say in what society look like upon they return, and that can only happen if they have the right to vote.” Jones gave the example of a hypothetical referendum to increase the minimum wage. “Many people incarcerated are pigeonholed into these low-paying jobs” and they should therefore have a voice in the matter, he said.

New Mexico’s HB 57 is believed to be the first bill proposed since the 2018 prison strike that would eliminate felony disenfranchisement. The other state with active legislation to enfranchise people while they are incarcerated is New Jersey.

One prominent Democratic legislator who told me that he backed these advocates’ goal is state Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto, who sits on both Senate committees (the Rules Committee and the Judiciary Committee) that would hear Chasey’s bill. Ivey-Soto, who is the vice-chairperson of the Judiciary Committee, said he still needed to read the bill’s exact language before committing to supporting it. But he added that “philosophically, at this moment, I plan to vote for it, because I feel so strongly about what it means to be a citizen of this country.”

“It raises a provocative fundamental question,” Ivey-Soto said. “If we have tied citizenship to eligibility to vote…, how do we say, this is your birthright but it’s not? How do we say that with citizenship comes the ability to participate in the process fully?”

“Even if I have been convicted of a felony, I am still a citizen of this country,” the senator added. “The fundamental question is, what is the nature of a basic fundamental right, what is the nature of a birthright that attaches with citizenship or a right that attaches with naturalization?”

Ivey-Soto noted that the current system is a hindrance on the voting rights of even people who are technically eligible since they have completed all components of their felony sentence. That’s because state agencies do not keep full and proper records of who has completed a sentence, and because county clerks demand to see a Certificate of Discharge that many individuals have not received from their parole or probation officers. “We have a lot of folks who currently qualify to register to vote who are being told no you aren’t eligible because the computer says you aren’t eligible unless you bring in this piece of paper that you never got,” Ivey-Soto told me. Jones of the ACLU said of this requirement to obtain a certificate of discharge: “It might be hard for [former prisoners] to engage the system that has mistreated them in many instances. To get your voting rights restored means you have to face the folks that have incarcerated you, and that’s a power dynamic that some folks are not ready to face.”

A similar power dynamic exists in an effort to get people who are already enfranchised to grant the right to vote to still-excluded individuals. And this dynamic now looms over the current push in New Mexico’s legislature. Ivey-Soto mentioned it as the main obstacle to HB 57. “This kind of legislation goes under the category of us-them legislation,” he said. “‘Us’ are talking about ‘them.’ And us-them legislation, oftentimes, you get surprised at how people vote on these things.”

You can find a standalone version of this story here.
This article is part of a state-based series on disenfranchisement.

Arkansas: Benton and Washington county activists organize against ICE’s 287(g) program

Two counties in northwest Arkansas (Benton and Washington) joined ICE’s 287(g) program more than a decade ago. A coalition of local groups, which include People Power Washington County, Arkansas United, Workers’ Justice Center, and Catholic Charities Group, is organizing to end that cooperation.

In December, activists transformed the usually muted public forum that 287(g)-participating counties must hold annually into a crowded protest. This got the local press to at least feature voices explaining the program’s impact on separating families and on throwing people into prolonged detention and deportation proceedings.

The 287(g) program authorizes local law enforcement to research the immigration status of people they detain. “ICE doesn’t have the human capacity, they don’t have enough people to enforce immigration law, so what they do is they rely on collaborations with local law enforcement,” said Juan José Bustamante, an associate professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Arkansas who also takes part in local organizing. “What the local community can do is make accountable local political officials, and that includes the sheriff’s departments, mayors, quorum courts, and what have you … to make them accountable about the outcome and the injustices that this collaboration produces.”

Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway and Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder have direct authority over renewing or terminating the program. Both were re-elected in 2018, and are next up for re-election in 2022.

Helder is a longtime Democratic sheriff who applied for a 287(g) contract in 2007 and has renewed it ever since. He skipped the December meeting.

Holloway, a Republican, attended it and said afterward that he was open to further conversations and to reviewing the program. Benton County’s 287(g) contract was last renewed in 2016, before Holloway became sheriff, but he has chosen to maintain his county’s participation. He faces an active choice later this year since the contract expires in June. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Speaking with the press in December, Holloway praised 287(g) for identifying “violent criminals.” Local officials often use such rhetoric, playing on the fact that 287(g) screens people who are at the county jail. But many of the people processed through the agreement are arrested for low-level offenses, including traffic violations. Even Helder, who is a strong proponent of the program, acknowledged this in a 2017 interview. “Not everyone is going to be a drug dealer or rapist or a bank robber,” he said. “There will be people that come through our doors that may have a warrant for a misdemeanor offense.”

That concession aside, Helder has misleadingly conflated crime and illegal immigration in defending his policies. “We recognized that we have problems with a high influx of illegals in the area, and I think that along with that came the criminal element,” he said in 2010, long before President Trump emerged on the political scene.

Blanca Estevez, an immigrants’ rights activist in Washington County who attended the December meeting, said immigrant communities have lived under Helder’s policies long before Trump’s victory, but public attention toward them has grown significantly since 2016, specifically among white residents. “I’ve been at the steering committee meetings where it’s been just me and nobody else for years,” she said, adding that “it was so great” to see a crowded room last month.

Local officials other than the sheriff have some leverage, too. Quorum courts (the state equivalent of a county commission) set the sheriff’s budget, for one. Washington County’s quorum court approved a significant increase to Helder’s budget last year, and his requests have again been central to the county’s budget discussions this winter. Mireya Reith, the founding executive director of Arkansas United, called on the quorum courts to use this authority to pressure the sheriffs or to order an audit of the 287(g) program’s financial impact.

Organizers told me that one challenge they have faced is that elected officials tend to not take Latinx constituents as seriously as white residents. Another is that the national climate and the mistrust toward law enforcement caused by the 287(g) program have repercussions on activism. “We find power in numbers, but there is still that fear in the community,” Reith said. “Our community doesn’t feel they have rights. … Our community believes that they will be fired and somebody will call ICE if they turn out.” ­Reith added that these perceptions are compounded by the state’s broader political dynamics. There is “a concerted effort in Arkansas since the civil rights movement to give activism and organizing a bad name,” she said. “The idea of hitting the streets as activism has a bad name.”

Estevez concurred. “We constantly put people through these ringers just to prove their humanity and that they are deserving of humanity just like anyone else who was born across an invisible line,” she said.

You can find a standalone version of this story here.

Florida, Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas: The 2018 elections have consequences

Florida: About 1.4 million Floridians regained the right to vote on Jan. 8, when a constitutional amendment ending the disenfranchisement of most people who complete a felony sentence went into effect. One of the first Floridians to register was Desmond Meade, a formerly incarcerated person who led the push for Amendment 4 with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The Florida Times-Union and the Tampa Bay Times reported on other people who registered. “Now the people making laws and writing laws are going to be listening to me,” said a Jacksonville resident who was disenfranchised over a felony conviction for driving with a suspended license and who hopes to get lawmakers to improve re-entry services. (I recommend perusing this Twitter thread by the Times-Union’s Andrew Pantazi detailing individual Floridians’ stories.) One complication flagged by the Miami Herald is that the Division of Elections is not yet running new registration through its felony database; it will do so later in the year, potentially after the legislature proposes a more restrict understanding of what it means to complete a sentence like over payments of court fines and fees.

Louisiana: In November, Louisianans voted to eliminate the state’s Jim Crow-era rules that allowed people to be convicted of a felony by a nonunanimous jury. This rule has contributed to the state’s high incarceration rate, and it has disproportionately harmed African Americans, who were likelier to be convicted over a holdout’s objection. This constitutional change went into effect on Jan. 1. However, as the Associated Press writes, not only does this change offer no retroactive relief for people convicted by nonunanimous juries in the past, but such verdicts will continue: Convictions obtained for any offense that occurred before 2019 need not be unanimous.

Maine: Shortly after becoming governor of Maine, Janet Mills issued an executive order to expand Medicaid as provided by the Affordable Care Act. Mainers voted to expand Medicaid in November 2017, but Governor Paul LePage blocked the expansion for more than a year. Erin Schumaker reports in HuffPost on the impact that Mills’s decision will have on the fight against Maine’s opioid crisis by enabling Mainers to access treatment and addiction medication. (See also: The Political Report discusses how advocates nationwide connected the dots between Medicaid access and drug addiction on the 2018 campaign trail.)

North Carolina: Garry McFadden, the new sheriff of Mecklenburg County (the jurisdiction that includes Charlotte), has ended the practice of putting 16- and 17-year-old youth in solitary confinement in the county jail, the Charlotte Observer reports. These teenagers sat in tiny windowless cells for 23 hours a day. North Carolina has already banned solitary confinement for youth in state prisons. “If you continue to disgrace [a young offender], and you continue to strip him of his dignity and you never give him a foundation to be a productive citizen—on day 13, when he gets out of the jail, what happens?” McFadden asked.

Texas: Ever since a federal court ruled that the bail system of Harris County (Houston) was unconstitutional, GOP misdemeanor judges were fighting to uphold the system. But Democrats swept all 15 criminal court positions that were on November’s ballot, and this week the new judges asked the court to dismiss their predecessors’ appeal. Harris County is now discussing a settlement with the plaintiffs. County Commissioner Rodney Ellis praised the judges’ move in the Houston Chronicle: “Not only does the existing bail system clearly violate the Constitution and our fundamental principles of liberty and equal treatment, it does nothing to protect communities or reduce crime.” 

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