Legal Services for Prisoners with Children v. Bowen

Closed Case
Jan 01, 2009

Throughout California, thousands of people are not allowed to vote because they are on parole for such statutory felonies as drug offenses and shoplifting. And while African-Americans constitute less than 7% of California's adult population, in 2006 they were approximately 28% of all those disenfranchised as a result of being in prison or on parole for a felony.

In June 2008, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the Impact Fund filed an amicus brief in the California Court of Appeal in the case Legal Services for Prisoners with Children v. Bowen, outlining the breadth and implications of disproportionate disenfranchisement of people of color.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) argued that denying the right to vote to people on parole for statutory felonies violates the Fourteen Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Amendment, LSPC argued, was designed to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by limiting criminal disenfranchisement to very serious crimes. Therefore, LSPC contended that denying the right to vote to people on parole for crimes that would not have been considered "felonies at common law" at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment is a violation of the Amendment. (Common law is based on legal principles established in earlier case law, in contrast to statutory law, which is based on legislation.)

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California's amicus brief brought a contemporary perspective to the case by showing that in recent years, California has rapidly expanded the number of crimes classified as felonies. The California Penal Code now has at least 500 felony offenses, as well as hundreds more offenses that can be treated as felonies or misdemeanors at the judge's discretion. We argued that this expansion of offenses deemed to be felonies has resulted in a disproportionate number of African-Americans in California losing the right to vote, directly contrary to the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court of Appeal ruled in January 2009 that this disenfranchisement was allowed under the Constitution. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children petitioned the California Supreme Court for review. This petition was denied.

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California continues its research and advocacy to ensure that people of color are not excluded from participating in the political process.

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