Will State End the Confusing Ban on Parolee Voting?

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Wendell Patillo thought he was on parole and that it was legal for him to vote. Actually, it would have been illegal. But he was on a different form of post-release supervision. So it was not. Confused yet?

Adi Talwar

Wendell Patillo thought he was on parole and that it was legal for him to vote. Actually, it would have been illegal. But he was on a different form of post-release supervision. So it was not. Confused yet?

Angel Garrido has never voted in his life. The year he turned 18, in 1979, he killed someone in retaliation, he says, for the murder of his little brother. Now 53 years old, his teenage felony conviction has prevented him from voting even 14 years after he was released from prison.

“I deserved what I got. I went out there and did it. I should have been punished and I was. I did it. I served my time, then I went home,” the Brooklyn resident said in recent phone interview. “So now let me have the same rights that everyone else has.”

Garrido was convicted of murder in the second degree and received a sentence of 15 years to life. After 20 years serving his time in many of the state’s correctional facilities, he walked out of Auburn Correctional Facility in 2001 ready to start his adult life in the outside world. He was assigned a parole officer and he started looking for work. He now works to help former inmates get jobs on the outside. He has not returned to prison since he was released.

Still, he can’t vote because he’s on parole. Garrido would have the right to vote while on parole if he was convicted of a felony in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts or more than a dozen other states. But not in New York.

That could soon change if advocates get their way. They’re pushing a bill that would permit voting by anyone who is otherwise eligible and not in prison.

A key argument for the change, advocates say, is that the current rule is too confusing for local election boards to implement or for ex-inmates to obey.

A City Limits investigation found evidence of this confusion. One former inmate was registered but didn’t know it. Two others thought they were on parole when they were actually on post-release supervision; one thought he’d perhaps voted illegally, and the other became eligible just before the 2014 election. A fourth former inmate said it was hard to find out just what his rights were when he left prison for parole.

Confusion reigns

Manhattan’s Jaime Sanchez has been in and out of prison most of his life, he says, for things he did and didn’t do. His last prison stint was eight years for assault. “I shot a guy in the nuts for getting fresh with my daughter,” he says matter-of-factly. The 64-year-old has been on parole for two years.

Since leaving prison, he says, he was lucky to get his job back doing housekeeping and maintenance for an education center in Manhattan. He recently had knee surgery, sidelining him from his job, and said he’s going to start collecting Social Security in 2015. He likes to read and write poetry. “I’m a different person today. But I do have my history,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Sanchez says he wasn’t sure of his voting rights when he was in prison and that inside, nobody knew the rules.

“I was misinformed. I ran into so many guys that told me prior to me getting out, ‘Oh you can vote now.’ Everyone was misinformed. I asked my parole officer. That’s how I know,” he said.

The current statute is vague. The law says no one in prison or on parole has the right to vote. But what about probation? Conditional release? Post-release supervision? And it leaves to local election boards the responsibility of interpreting whether a person who has done time but is now free has regained the right to vote.

In 2013, State Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson introduced Senate Bill 3342, which would give parolees the right to vote. The bill did not make it out of committee in 2013 or 2014, but civil rights advocates are hoping this is the year. Their main argument is that parole is supposed to reacquaint a former inmate with society, not continue to punish them after they’ve served their time.

“Parole is meant to help prevent recidivism and to rehabilitate and reinitiate a felon back into society. This rehabilitation is built on the offender’s recognition of fault, taking responsibility for his or her behavior, and his or her effort to change,” reads the introduction to the bill. “Preventing releasees from voting, and from exercising a constitutional right and a civic responsibility, is a barrier to full reintegration into society.”

Senate Bill 3342 also clears up the existing confusion by making the rule simple: If you’re in prison, you can’t vote. If you’re out of prison, you can.

Post-release supervision or parole?

Bronxite Wendell Patillo, 51, served a year in prison for criminal sale of a controlled substance, a class B felony. He was released from the Bare Hill Correctional Facility on December 3, 2013 and he was assigned a parole officer. But he wasn’t on parole, he was on post-release supervision. To him, there was no difference. In fact, he thought he was on parole. And the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision parolee lookup online has him listed as “discharged to parole” for one year through December 3, 2014, which appears to make him ineligible to vote.

But since he served his maximum sentence of one year and then was released, by state law he was on post-release supervision and can vote. The difference between supervision and parole? If he was released before his maximum sentence was completed, he would have to serve the balance on parole and would not have the right to vote.

It’s confusing.

“Lawyers can figure it out,” said Mike Ryan, who serves as executive director of the city Board of Elections, but said he was speaking as a lawyer with an extensive background in criminal justice including a stint as deputy director to the state’s division of criminal justice.

Since this section of the election law was last touched, the state’s sentencing laws have changed, starting dramatically with the Rockefeller Drug Laws, followed by amendments over the years. When the election law was written, there was no such thing as post-release supervision.

“The election law as currently constituted was drafted prior to these changed in criminal sentencing law, so I think now might be a good time for a discussion for the state legislature to look at where language may need to be amended,” Ryan said.

The state’s description of post-release supervision on its website shows why inmates might be confused between post-release supervision and parole: “While serving the period of post-release supervision, the offender is under the jurisdiction of the New York State Division of Parole and is supervised in the community by a New York State Parole Officer.”

Patillo, thinking he was on parole even though he was on post-release supervision, voted in the Nov. 4 general election for governor.

When told parolees are not allowed to vote in New York, Patillo thought that was ridiculous.

“That’s a dumb, dumb rule, a person on parole can’t vote. If you’re on parole you are in society, you are living productive now,” he said in a phone interview. “I changed my life around. It ain’t about robbing anybody or hustling anybody anymore. I do the righteous hustle. I go to work, I have a job. My vote, it counts, it means something for me.”

Making a list

When you are convicted of a felony in New York, you are removed from the voter rolls. Every month, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) sends a list of convicted people to the state Board of Elections and the BOE knocks their name off the list.

In the past, the state has had a problem with election officers not knowing the rules and telling people on probation incorrectly that they are not allowed to vote. In the mid-2000s, the BOE started training its officials and in 2010, state law was changed to require prison officials and parole officers to inform people of their rights and provide them with voter registration forms upon their release from incarceration or supervision.

The Hassell-Thompson bill would require the state to “provide voter registration forms to every person on parole, presumptive release, conditional release or post-release supervision at the time such person is released to supervision or as soon thereafter as practicable.”

Lisa Otero, a 38-year-old Bronxite who served two years on a drug charge, said nobody ever told her if she could or couldn’t vote when she was released from prison and on post-release supervision. She, like Patillo, thought she was on parole when she was actually on post-release supervision. She said she filled out a voter registration card when she was signing up for welfare.

Still, she was unsure of her rights and was not sure if she was actually registered, though she is a registered voter according to Board of Elections data.

“I think I could vote because I’m a human being. I committed a crime but I paid for it. I did my time. I never got in trouble until then. And I think I’m able to vote,” she said.

When asked if she voted, she said, “I don’t have the time to vote because I have a family.”

Rights unknown

This reporter told 25-year-old Sidney Joyner from the Bronx that he was, in fact, registered to vote. That was news to him. He spent three months on Rikers on a felony drug charge and on the day of his release, he was offered to register to vote.

“They bring out of your cell. Take you downstairs. Try to get you SNAP benefits. Try to get you Medicaid. It’s a room like that. Speaking to people on how they can help you get food stamps. They have someone saying, ‘Oh would you be interested in registering to vote again?’ and you can say ‘yeah’ or you can say ‘nah,’” he said.

He said he asked if he was allowed to vote as a convicted felon.

“They said it was a chance. They never said it was a known fact,” he said. “They didn’t explain it to me. They basically said there was a chance to vote again.”

So he filled out the voter registration and said he never knew if he was actually registered.

“I don’t know why they don’t have anybody else notifying anything. Or sending a letter or anything. They don’t even try to see if you know if you can vote or not. They just take your registration and they leave it at that.”

Still, he was out of jail in 2013 and had time to check his registration and vote in the election last year, but he didn’t. He says he didn’t know if he was registered so he didn’t vote.

The context: low turnout

In New York, it’s almost trite to say voter turnout is low, but it’s the truth. Less people are voting. Turnout for the governor’s race last year was the lowest count in New York in 72 years.

And New York barred about 36,000 people on parole from registering to vote. Civil rights advocates have argued the state’s convoluted policy also discourages people who have the right to vote from doing so.

Garrido says he’s going to keep fighting for the right to vote.

“I’m not the only one in this. This is not a pity party. There’s a lot of other people that want things done in their community and they are losing faith,” he said.

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