Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | October 26, 2020

Restore Voting Rights: Congregation Support for Prop 17


Everyone in America deserves to have their voices recognized at the ballot box.

Heather Millar, a congregation council member and jail ministry participant, knows this better than most. Join Heather and Grace Cathedral, both in heart and in spirit, at the polls, and vote yes on Proposition 17.

Heather’s letter is below.

I am thrilled that Grace Cathedral is choosing to publicly support California Proposition 17, a statewide measure on the November 2020 ballot that would restore voting rights to offenders who have been released from prison and are on parole.

One of the many reasons I make Grace Cathedral my spiritual home is that the commitment to social justice is clear: both from the clergy and from the 500 or so households that make up the cathedral’s congregation. The Grace Cathedral that I know and love has long been a participant in movements to right wrongs, to bring those at the margins into the center.We worked for labor rights in the 1930s, for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, for women’s rights in the 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Cathedral led an effort to serve those impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis.

A Black friend in our congregation, Regina Walton, sums it up beautifully, “We are called as followers of Christ to fight for justice. Let’s get to work.”

The Cathedral today continues the work begun in earlier decades, while responding to the injustices and needs of the moment. Right now, many issues press in upon us all, but three seem particularly crucial: Our system of policing and incarceration. Racial injustice. Voter suppression. If it passes, Proposition 17 would make a positive difference in all these areas.

In our culture, there’s lots of talk about the need for offenders to “pay their debt to society.” But even after a person is released from prison, the punishment continues: In many California cities, felons cannot get public housing until five or 10 years after release. It’s difficult for them to find jobs. In many cases, they’re saddled with “restitution” fines they cannot hope to repay without decent employment. Proposition 17 is one step moving away from this punitive approach toward criminal policy that emphasizes rehabilitation.

Black people, and people of color, are far more likely to be locked up than white people. Blacks make up 6 percent of Californians, but 26 percent of parolees. Caucasian felons also make up 26 percent of paroles, but a far greater percentage of Californians: 40 percent. The reasons and history are complex, but the reality is simple: BIPOC offenders are far more likely to be arrested. When arrested, they are far more likely to receive harsh sentences. If you want more information, you can find exhaustive detail supporting this statement in the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

By restoring voting rights to felons earlier, Proposition 17 begins to right some of these wrongs.

Finally, Proposition 17 extends the franchise, the right to vote, to people who have been profoundly affected by public policy. “Three strikes” laws, sentencing guidelines, prison funding and programming—these issues are decided at the ballot box. Yet because they are incarcerated at greater rates, and thus have less opportunity to vote, BIPOC people have less of a political voice to weigh in on issues that affect them.

Proposition 17 restores this political voice to those who have served their time.

When we’re not coping with a global pandemic, I volunteer in the San Francisco County Jail through a Cathedral ministry. Each month, I interact with a dozen or so inmates. I have no idea

why they’re in jail; we’re not allowed to ask. But I do know that many of them follow politics and are acutely aware of the issues outlined above.

I’m thinking of one inmate in particular, a Black man in his 40s. Let’s call him “John.” John seeks me out each month. He wants to talk about current events. He wants to know what I think, and he wants to tell me what he thinks.

When someone like John gets out of prison, they should be able vote. Proposition 17 would make that possible.

Heather Millar is a member of the Social Justice Committee of the Grace Cathedral Congregation Council.

  • Graphic by @truebluestationary on Instagram
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