Retired Police Chief Supports Restoring Voting Rights

By Chief Ronnie Roberts (Ret.)

When people are released from prison, they must have the tools and support to re-integrate successfully into our communities and stay on a positive path. Yet Washington state currently throws up needless barriers to re-entry for formerly incarcerated people — including denying them the right to vote. Washington Senators took an important step to address this injustice this week by passing House Bill 1078, which will to restore voting rights to all citizens who are not in prison.

As Chief of the Olympia Police Department, I wanted to stop cycling the same people through our correctional facilities and emergency rooms. I created the Familiar Faces program, which identified the people involved in dozens of police calls every month and provided them with peer navigators: — people with lived experience with mental health challenges, substance use disorders, homelessness, and criminal justice involvement.

Peer navigators connect well with program participants because they have truly walked a mile in their shoes. These relationships are the key to getting the right services to the right people who might not trust anyone else, especially a police officer. Peer navigators also have been transforming the way our officers connect with the people impacted by our criminal legal system. One day, I was surprised to see one of my sergeants, who had always viewed people with past convictions as the “bad guys,” sitting down with a peer navigator to strategize about how to engage a Familiar Faces client in services. My sergeant had finally learned to see our peer navigators as important partners.

Despite their invaluable community service, some of our peer navigators cannot vote. They are transforming public safety in Olympia by building relationships that stabilize lives and reduce arrests, emergency room visits, and 911 calls. Yet they have past convictions, and some are on community supervision, Washington’s version of parole and probation. During the months or years that they are under community supervision, they are living at home, working, and changing how both police officers and the formerly incarcerated think about public safety, yet many of them cannot participate in our democracy.

House Bill 1078 will change this. Once Governor Inslee signs this bill into law, Washington will restore voting rights to over 20,000 people living in our communities. The House version of the bill is bipartisan, and its prime sponsor, Rep. Tarra Simmons, is believed to be the first formerly incarcerated individual to be elected as a state legislator. This bill will bring Washington up to speed with Oregon, Indiana, Ohio, and 21 other states that already allow all citizens who are not in prison to vote.

The success of House Bill 1078 is a big win for public safety, as restoring voting rights is associated with reducing the number of people returning to the system. Research has shown that civic engagement and inclusion improve re-entry outcomes. When people feel that their voices are heard and accepted in their community, they are less likely to fall back into criminal activity. The American Probation and Parole Association has supported the restoration of voting rights for people on community supervision since 2007 because disenfranchisement works against re-entry.

Rights restoration is also going to help rebuild community trust, particularly in communities of color. One key source of record-high distrust in law enforcement is the presence of racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and a prime case of racial disparity is the denial of voting rights. Today, Black and Indigenous residents make up just 6% of Washington’s population, yet they make up over 16% of those who have lost their voting rights.

As police chief, my work with peer navigators taught me that formerly incarcerated people are valuable members of our communities who can establish strong relationships that help police reduce crime. The passage of House Bill 1078 was a win for public safety, and a win for the thousands of Washingtonians who will be brought back into our democracy.

Ronnie Roberts served in policing for 33 years, retiring as Chief of the Olympia Police Department in December 2019. To connect with him and other law enforcement in support of restoring voting rights, contact the Law Enforcement Action Partnership at Speakers@LawEnforcementAction.org.

Welcome to Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) blog! We’re a nonprofit group of law enforcement pros who advance proven solutions to public safety issues.

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