James Jeter Credit: Contributed photo

James Jeter cast his first ballot in an election in November thanks to a change in state law that allowed those with felony convictions to vote while on parole.

“It meant more because we’ve been fighting for it,” said Jeter, who is co-director of The Full Citizen’s Coalition to Unlock the Vote and the program director of Civic Allyship at Dwight Hall at Yale University.

After serving 19½ years for a murder he had committed at age 17, Jeter was released from prison in 2016. At the time, state law prohibited those incarcerated with a felony conviction or people released after serving time for a felony conviction from voting until they finished parole. He was denied the right to vote for nearly five more years.

“You have children who don’t see active parents, so they don’t become active themselves,” the 41-year-old Jeter said. “If you can engage people while they are in prison, for the first time they realize they have a stake in the community.”

Jeter and a coalition of advocacy groups, individuals, law clinics and the state’s Sentencing Commission are now calling on the Government Administration and Elections Committee to raise a bill that would allow all incarcerated individuals to vote.
Last year, legislators passed a law to allow those who were convicted of a felony to vote when they were released from prison. Prior to that, people like Jeter who were released from prison after serving time for a felony conviction could vote only after they completed parole.

Today only those being held as their cases are pending or who are serving time for misdemeanor convictions can vote while incarcerated. That’s about 38% of the state’s prison population, according to Alex Tsarkov, executive director of the Sentencing Commission.

The law proposed by the coalition would allow all people who are incarcerated to vote through a “presumptive absentee ballot status” that would connect incarcerated individuals with absentee ballots in the towns where they reside.

The absentee voting process in the proposed law is modeled after the existing “permanent absentee ballot status” law for those who are permanently disabled. Inmates would be allowed to vote in any municipal, state or federal election or referendum starting July 1.

The proposed legislation also would require the commissioner of the state Department of Correction and the Sentencing Commission to submit a joint report to the GAE Committee each year on the implementation of voter registration and the absentee ballot provisions of the law.

Sarah Russell, director of the Legal Clinic at Quinnipiac School of Law and a member of the Sentencing Commission said it’s an important step in reducing recidivism because people who are able to vote can actively and positively engage with government and the community and feel like they have a voice in the process.

“These are the things that keep people law-abiding,” Russell said.

The history of denying those with felony convictions the right to vote is grounded in racism, according to a letter from the coalition to Committee Co-chair Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Willimantic, asking that the committee raise the bill.

“Felony disenfranchisement laws, a legacy of the Jim Crow era disproportionately exclude members of historically marginalized communities in our state, including Black and Latinx communities, from the democratic process,” said the letter signed by Jeter, Russell and three dozen other representatives of advocacy groups, unions and legal clinics.

As it stands, the law disproportionately impacts the Black and Latinx community which makes up 71% of the state’s prison population but only 29% of state residents, the letter said.

The right to vote lets people have a say in what happens in their community, said Tanya Rhodes Smith of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work.

“Restoring voting rights not only supports re-entry, it strengthens civic life and outcomes in communities that are most impacted by incarceration,” Rhodes Smith said. “Voting and voter turnout correlates with arrest and incarceration.”

Communities that see the highest number of arrests and incarceration tend to have the lowest voter turnout, she said. “Communities who vote in high rates get more attention and resources from government officials,” Rhodes Smith said.

Under the previous law, Jeter wouldn’t have been able to vote for another 10 years, when his parole was completed. For the past four years, he and Unlock the Vote have worked hard to raise awareness to re-enfranchise thousands of people who are incarcerated or on parole.

“If you want someone to be engaged when they come home, they have to be engaged on the inside,” Jeter said.

Black and brown communities are over-policed and over-incarcerated which only leads to more crime, Jeter said. “If you want to stop intergenerational incarceration, give people a say on who is on the Board of Ed, or the mill rate,” he said.