By Niki Martinez
Every second of every day since I completed my prison sentence, I have done everything I can to live my life with purpose, to help others, and to make amends for the mistake I made when I was 17 years old.
I work four jobs, helping other formerly incarcerated individuals overcome obstacles we face related to earning a degree, securing a job, or finding housing. I do this because I know how challenging and discouraging these obstacles can become, but also how important they are to our successful reentry to society. But under California law, many of us can’t rejoin society — not fully.
In the eyes of the state, neither best intentions, nor hard work, nor good deeds can earn me back my full citizenship. That’s because of a 19th century law that’s still part of California’s constitution that bars individuals who’ve completed their prison sentence from voting. It’s a disenfranchisement law, ratified during a dark chapter in our country’s history, designed to keep people who look like me from having a say in our democracy. It blocks almost 50,000 Californians from the ballot box.
This year, California can correct this longstanding injustice by voting “yes” on Proposition 17, a ballot measure that would restore the right to vote to citizens who have returned from prison.
Passage would give tens of thousands of Californians a boost in their efforts to rejoin society as productive citizens with a stake in our democracy. Our state — our whole country — stands to benefit from their success.
Each of the jobs I hold serves as a vehicle for helping others reenter society, and to live full and meaningful lives in their communities. With Youth Empowerment Services of San Diego, for example, I mentor young adults leaving juvenile hall and serve as a case manager for the organization’s adult reentry program.
I do this work because I remember how difficult it was returning to society from prison — from finding housing to securing a job to completing everyday tasks, responsibilities, and demands. And yet perhaps the most challenging aspect of reentry is a stigma that causes society to look at us as “less than.”
That stigma is clearest come election time when every citizen in our communities but us is able to vote on the issues that matter to them. These issues also matter to me and the 50,000 other Californian citizens who are denied our fundamental right to vote, and they have just as direct an impact on our lives as they do on everyone else’s.
It’s hard for me to look the individuals I work with in the eye and tell them sincerely that they matter when it’s clear our own state constitution doesn’t agree. And it’s hard to tell someone returning home from prison that even though they’re back on the outside, their voice is still silenced, just as it was on the inside.
By restoring our voting rights, millions of Californians would send a direct message that 50,000 California citizens working to rebuild our lives and our communities matter.
I can promise you that I will continue to live my life with purpose, whether Proposition 17 passes or not, and that I will dedicate myself to supporting those around me, my community, and the “returning citizens” I work with.
But it’s important that society recognizes the many walls and barriers we’re confronted with after completing our sentences. And while it will never be easy to return to society, restoring our right to vote will give us the hope we need to keep working toward that goal.
Niki Martinez is a resident of San Diego and chief operating officer of Youth Empowerment Services on San Diego . She was incarcerated for 25 years before completing her sentence in 2019.