Former parolees react to passage of California's Prop 17

There will now be tens of thousands of new eligible California voters.
FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Steven Hensley watched the last presidential election unfold while he sat behind bars at Avenal State Prison.

"I remember reflecting and thinking about it and how I would never be able to be a part of that," said Hensley.

He was incarcerated when he was 17 years old, spent about 6 years behind bars, and three on parole.

Now at 27 years old, his vote was counted in an election for the first time this week. It's a long-awaited right he says he does not take for granted.

"Honestly for the longest time even after I was off state supervision and I was off parole, I thought that I wasn't able to vote," he said.

The passage of Proposition 17 restores the right to vote for about 50,000 California parolees.

RELATED: California propositions: Election results for the 2020 ballot measures

Hensley, now a double-major student at Fresno State, says taking part in the democratic process helps convicted felons move on from their criminal past.

"We want to engage. We want to give back and we want to be a part of the cycle that allows for us to go forward," he said.

Opponents of the proposition argued parole is still a part of the punishment.

"I could actually understand why they would feel that way. However, the parole period is your integration period," said Jennifer Leahy, an adjunct criminal justice professor at Fresno State.

Leahy is a lecturer for Fresno State's Criminal Justice Program. She was once incarcerated herself and said when an inmate leaves prison, they deserve a voice in the society they return to.

"We give up privileges, but we don't give up the right to be an American citizen. An individual who is engaged and interested in politics is not someone who is interested in committing crimes," she said.

Proponents of Prop 17 say many felons who have long ago completed their sentence and their parole don't realize that they do have the right to vote.

They hope that the passage of Prop 17 will also help educate former inmates on their voting rights.
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