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Colo. Supreme Court upholds law barring parolees from voting

The Associated Press

DENVER- A state law prohibiting convicted felons from voting while they are on parole does not violate the state Constitution, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday in an opinion that will keep about 6,550 people from casting ballots this year.

The justices said parole is a form of custody and part of a prison sentence, so the law prohibiting parolees from voting does not contradict a provision of the constitution that denies a ballot to anyone "confined in any public prison."

The unanimous ruling affirmed a lower court's interpretation of the 1995 state law that specifically barred parolees from voting.

Attorney General John Suthers said the ruling affirms the Legislature's clear intent to keep parolees from voting.

But the director of an advocacy group that challenged the law in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union's Colorado chapter said at a time when the prison population is soaring, the state should be doing all it can to ease prisoners' transitions into society.

Volunteer ACLU attorney Norm Mueller said there were no grounds for a federal lawsuit on the issue. He said the plaintiffs could ask the Supreme Court to reconsider but they had not discussed the possibility.

"I just think if what we're trying to do with the criminal justice system is reintegrate people into society, I think you want them vested into society, and it is the most fundamental right we have, to vote," he said.

Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said she would consider asking lawmakers to change the law.

"When people are out in the community working and paying their taxes and trying to put their life together, civic engagement is an important part of getting back in the community, and they're being denied that full participation," she said. "The reality is that most folks are not successful."

She pointed to state Department of Corrections statistics showing 6,551 people on parole as of June 30, up from 5,244 two years earlier.

Donner said disenfranchisement is only one barrier faced by parolees.

"With a felony conviction, they are having a very difficult time finding employment, housing, reconnecting with their families. They're not well-prepared and there's not enough support," she said. "The best thing that you can do is try and help people connect back to society in meaningful ways ... and voting is one of them."

The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Donner's group, Colorado-CURE and Michael Danielson of Fort Collins, who was paroled in 2003 following a conviction on drug and theft charges.

Attorneys argued that under the state Constitution, prisoners' voting rights should be restored when they are released from prison, even if they are still on parole.

The constitution says that voting rights are restored when a convict completes the "full term of imprisonment" or is pardoned.

"I continue to think that the framers of the state Constitution were very clear when they said that felons lose the right to vote only when they are confined in a public prison, that is, when they're imprisoned, and I continue to believe that being on parole is not being confined in a public prison," Mueller said.

But the Supreme Court agreed with the secretary of state and Denver District Judge Michael Martinez that convicted felons have not served their full sentence until all components - including parole - are completed. Martinez had ruled that federal and state courts have defined parole as part of a prison term because it constrains a person's liberties and because parolees remain in government custody.

Justice Gregory Hobbs wrote for the court that parole is an extension of confinement that includes only partial restoration of rights.

"Of course we agree with Danielson that parole did not exist at the time Colorado adopted its constitution, but this does not mean that the General Assembly was constrained from punishing crimes with sentences that include custody while the convicted person is being transitioned to community and before restoration of his or her full rights," the ruling said.

Danielson did not immediately return a call.

Danielson, who was ordained a pastor while in prison, has said restoring parolees' voting rights would help them in their transition from prison. Danielson runs the Church of the Remnant Ministry, which helps recently released prisoners.

In the 2004 election, the secretary of state's office discovered 6,352 possible voter registration matches for felons, and county clerks were ordered to check the rolls for felons and flag them for poll judges.

The ACLU has said up to 5 million Americans who are convicted felons cannot vote under various state laws. Ten states permanently disenfranchise convicted felons, while 14 states restore voting rights when a prisoner leaves prison and four restore voting rights after parole is completed, the ACLU said.

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