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COMMENTARY: Voting rights restored: Now seize the opportunity

With the Legislature’s passage of Assembly Bill 431 in 2019, Nevada took a big step forward in the fight for greater equity by restoring upon release from incarceration the voting rights of all of our citizens who have been convicted of a felony. This law eliminates waiting periods and automatically restores voting rights regardless of the category of felony committed or whether the individual is still on parole or probation because everyone should have a voice in the future of our community.

With this important act, nearly 77,000 formerly incarcerated Nevadans are having their right to vote restored just in time to vote in their first presidential election — and I will proudly be among them.

In 2016, I was working in health care but suffering from a drug abuse problem. I suffered a mental health breakdown and was unable to access our state’s mental health services — services our state just further cut — and I was arrested. If help had been available and I had received the inpatient treatment I needed, I likely would never have ended up where I did. I served a two-year sentence for a conspiracy of robbery charge and was released in 2018.

After serving my sentence, I began working to turn my life around. I was able to create stability for myself by volunteering for organizations such as The Mass Liberation Project, Samaritan House and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. They helped provide me with grounding and resources for re-entry and to get involved in the fight for justice. And I started my own nonprofit — Better Minds Better Communities — which is helping house people who have had similar challenges.

Voting in this election means having a chance to finally be heard once again in one of the most pivotal elections of our time. In America and in our state, police accountability, social justice and public health are at the forefront. Black communities are feeling the impacts of continued racial injustices, a lack of accountability and a nationwide failed response to a pandemic that’s hurting our communities disproportionately. This election represents the opportunity to demand those who create and enforce our laws be held accountable.

A culturally competent and accountable criminal justice system is important to me, and I am most looking forward to electing my local judges, district attorneys and sheriffs. As someone who was formerly incarcerated, I can now vote for or against the people who create and implement the laws and slash the funding for resources that put me behind bars. To many, they may just be names on a sign in front of a polling station. But for us, they are the ones whose decisions shaped our lives and our futures. Yet until now, they have been held accountable only by those fortunate enough to have never had their right to vote taken away. Now, those of us who have been through the system, can be the ones voting to improve it.

We can build communities where people can receive treatment instead of prisons. Our criminal justice system needs programs, not prisons; it needs more diversion programs with housing and not handcuffs. With returning citizens now having the ability to vote, we can force this type of change.

If just half of the 77,000 formerly incarcerated Nevadans get out and vote, we can better shape our elections and our systems. Yet research has shown that only one in five returning citizens registers and votes.

In this election, we need to ensure those who have recently had their voting rights restored are registered and have a plan to vote. America works best when all of us make our voices heard at the ballot box. Simply, the stakes are too high to sit this one out.

— Jovan Jackson lives in Las Vegas.

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