Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell said voting helps jail detainees feel connected and responsible for their communities. It also reduces recidivism rates.
To facilitate voting, there are modular kiosks in hallways in the Peoria County Jail with instructions about voting by mail for detainees who are already registered to vote. A more complicated problem is helping detainees register because a significant number are homeless and have no permanent address. Without a permanent address, people cannot register to vote.
Illinois SB 2090 sponsored by Sen. Omar Aquino, D-Chicago, requires county jails to collaborate with election authorities to create a formal process ensuring pre-trial detainees can vote during elections. The bill was introduced in February and has garnered support from the Illinois ACLU.
The legislation also requires that upon release, detainees be informed of their voting rights. Many former jail detainees and people released from prisons in Illinois are unaware that in this state, they are eligible to vote.
“We give a life sentence to people convicted of a crime. Even after they are free, they still have a scarlet letter ‘F’ for felon,” Asbell said. “For decades, punishment in this country has been punitive, not rehabilitative. My reentry program starts on day one of incarceration. The goal is to become productive citizens. Voting helps make a person whole again.”
He said the No. 1 influencer of public safety is employment. When vacant houses are on nearly every block in the 61605 area code, that means loss of property taxes and loss of revenue for rehabilitative programs and job training.
“For years, jails and prisons have been warehouses, and we didn’t invest in programs and services,” Asbell said. “If we want to look at this jail building as an opportunity to rebuild people, voting is part of that.”
Voting rights vary greatly by state. In Vermont, a person convicted of first-degree murder can still vote while incarcerated. In Mississippi, a person who commits perjury could be permanently barred from voting.
The ACLU has filed an amicus brief for Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who was on supervised release after serving a five-year sentence for tax fraud. Mason thought she was eligible to cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election. She was arrested, charged and sentence to five years in prison for illegally voting.