Although jail detainees are kept behind bars, City Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) says their votes should not be.
Wills introduced a bill at last week’s Council meeting outlining a process for the city Department of Correction to administer absentee ballot applications ahead of elections, distribute them to eligible voters and then return their ballots to the city Board of Elections.
In New York, inmates convicted of misdemeanors and those awaiting judicial rulings on felony charges are eligible to vote. Close to 81 percent of those in the state prison system are detainees who have been charged but not convicted of crimes, and are therefore eligible to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice policy institute, at New York University’s School of Law.
“I encounter more constituents than I would like ... that if they were in Rikers or another jail, they didn’t know they could vote. I have had people come up to me and tell me their voter record is messed up and they were never locked up or they had a misdemeanor conviction,” Wills said.
Neither the BOE nor DOC responded to requests for comment on the bill and how voting currently works in city jails.
Wills described the legislation, which is co-sponsored by Council members Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn) and Rosie Mendez (D-Manhattan), as the first in a series of criminal justice and voter enfranchisement bills.
Wills is drafting a bill that would have federal investigators step in when police or public prosecutors are accused of misconduct.
And Wills intends to introduce a resolution calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers to reinstate voting rights for non-violent felons as soon as they leave prison rather than after completing parole.
“If we say OK you need to be monitored, but you’ve paid your debt as far as the judicial system is concerned, than I believe you should be allowed to vote,” he said. “This disproportionately affects minority communities.”
Indeed, the New York Civil Liberties Union, a civil rights advocacy group, found that one out of 24 black voters in New York were disenfranchised compared to one in 121 of all voters across the state.
Kamau Butcher, policy director for the Bronx Defenders legal group that registers voters in Rikers Island, said Wills’ bill would establish a timeline for distributing applications and ballots and then submitting them to the BOE.
This would provide detainees with assurance their votes would reach the BOE by deadline, according to Butcher.
In an unrelated development, Wills’ legal team announced plans to request that a special prosecutor handle the case state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought against the councilman for allegedly stealing some $30,000 in government funds.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at stran
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