Those of us with a criminal record face hurdles and barriers in just about every aspect of our daily lives – running for an elected position is no different. Even though one-third of Americans have a criminal record (which means we all know someone who has a conviction), to many it is still a subject that is not to be discussed publicly. Nonetheless, a growing number of returning citizens have thrown their hats in races for office at the municipal, state, and federal levels.
Earlier this year, Joel Castòn became D.C.’ s first incarcerated person to win a local election, landing a seat on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Just last year the District restored voting rights to people convicted of a felony which in turn made it possible for people like Joel to run for office from behind the wall. Before this, Maine and Vermont were the only states where incarceration didn’t result in voting and election disenfranchisement. In most of the country, incarcerated citizens are counted as residents strictly for purposes of allocating resources; however, Joel, who hopes to be released later this year, now represents incarcerated men and women along with residents in D.C.’s Ward 7 that includes the D.C. Department of Corrections, a women’s shelter, and luxury townhomes.
Tarra Simmons made history when she ran a successful campaign for state representative in Washington. Last November she was elected to represent Kitsap County (about 40 miles outside of Tacoma). After serving two and half years in state prison, Simmons completed law school but was denied admittance by the State Bar due to her conviction. After taking her case to the State Supreme Court she was later admitted and became a civil rights attorney. An emerging leader, Representative Simmons hit the ground running, successfully getting her first piece of legislation, a bill automatically restoring voting rights to returning citizens, signed into law earlier this year.
These trailblazers help pave the way for other returning citizens to run for elected positions. Others who have taken steps to run for office include:
Individuals running for office know a tough road lies ahead, those with a conviction know that road is also uphill. At least four states limit or outright bar returning citizens from holding public office. Others require candidates to petition the court to restore their rights.
Not every returning citizen wants to run for office but those that do shouldn’t be hobbled by extra hurdles. These obstacles make it even more challenging for justice-impacted citizens to serve and improve our cities as elected officials. Our lived experiences give us a unique perspective on how to tackle many of the challenges our communities face. We can help better develop and implement specific initiatives to improve public safety. If you are a municipal leader looking to make transformative change in your community, I urge you to remove roadblocks to voting and running for local office for justice impacted citizens.
Reach out: If you are a municipal leader making or looking to make changes to your reentry programs, we want to hear from you. Share Your Story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org