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Returning Citizens Issues at Forefront of D.C. Council Race

Reminiscing on his youth while growing up in the District, Maurice Matthews said he is concerned that young people today must pay to play sports at area recreation centers. He believes youth programs should be free. He’s talked to candidates hoping to represent his community in Ward 5, and he will make sure his voice heard when he casts his vote in the upcoming general election on Nov. 6.

Matthews is a returning citizen, and since his godmother informed him of his reinstated voting rights, he has immersed himself in the politics of his neighborhood, advocating for children and those who were formerly incarcerated.

Matthews, 49, believes voting is part of a broader strategy to change the conditions of his environment.

“A lot [of returning citizens] are astonished they have this right [to vote], but they might not understand the political process,” he said. “They refuse to take an opportunity because they don’t understand the concept and process in voting. You could tell people about certain aspects, but if you don’t get a comprehension, you’re not doing yourself any justice.”

Matthews is one of the thousands of returning citizens who’ve regained the right to vote upon establishing District residency. Detainees in D.C. Jail may also vote by absentee ballot while awaiting trial, and so long as they are not serving time for a felony.

For some advocates, raising awareness about returning citizens’ voting rights has been an uphill battle. Last year, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced legislation mandating the D.C. Court System, Department of Corrections, and Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (MORCA) inform returning citizens, verbally and in written form, of their voting rights.

That bill followed legislation introduced by Council member Robert White (D-At large), and eight other council members, that would prepare returning citizens for their transition six months before their release.

Upon their release, some returning citizens serve their communities as members and founders of grassroots organizations. Many of them, like Stuart Anderson, said there’s work to be done to ensure formerly incarcerated men and women receive a real second chance.

“If you ask about how many returning citizens know about their right to vote, less than 40 percent would be a good range,” said Anderson, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens.

During this primary season, the organization hosted a forum for D.C. Council candidates.

“We’ve been trying to make returning citizens aware that when they come back and establish an address, their voting right is reinstated,” Anderson added. “They don’t teach this stuff in programs outside of the District and Virginia. Individuals have to educate their peers.”

In D.C., nearly 10 percent of the population, or 67,000 residents, has a criminal conviction, according to the D.C. Policy Center. More than 2,800 returning citizens enter the District annually, only to endure the high cost of living and a gaping economic divide that has marginalized longtime, working-class African-American D.C. residents.

To alleviate their economic hurdles, the D.C. Council and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser passed legislation in 2016 launching the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program, under which returning citizens would receive training to start their independent ventures. To the chagrin of returning citizens and advocates, the Council didn’t appropriate funds to the program in the following fiscal year.

Returning citizens going to the ballot box said they want elected officials who understand their plight in obtaining stable and honest employment. Currently, MORCA has a commission comprised of D.C residents that meets once a month and examines the nuances of the returning citizen experience.

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