A package of bills signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker is aimed at helping newly-released Illinois prisoners find their way back into the democratic process.
Kilroy Watkins spent nearly 30 years in Illinois’ prison system for a felony crime, and those serving time for a felony can’t vote. But once Watkins got out, he had earned his voting rights back, but didn’t know it. What’s more: no one bothered to tell him.
“During the time I was in the county jail for more than two years, I was never presented with no application to register to vote upon my release," he told a crowd of supporters and media gathered for the bill signings. "I was never informed I had the right to vote.”
Watkins studied law while in prison, and became a well-known and respected law clerk. But even he didn’t know people convicted of felonies earn their voting rights back once they’re released.
“Now I carry my voter registration card with me everywhere I go,” he added.
The new state laws aim to educate prisoners on their voting rights and offer them a chance to vote when possible. Illinois jails and prisons will now have to give inmates detailed information on their voting rights, provide voter applications, and even allow those awaiting trial to vote.
State Rep. Chris Welch (D, Hillside) sponsored some of the bills.
“We stand here together in Illinois committed to continuing the long tradition in American history: extending and expanding the access to vote," he told the crowd. "The ability to vote is one of our most cherished principles in this country.”
The Department of Corrections will also provide a new civics class to newly-released inmates, taught by trained peer educators. A related measure signed into law gives inmates the ability to shave time off their sentences if they complete education courses or treatment programs while incarcerated.
State Rep. Sonya Harper (D, Chicago) estimates some 30,000 people are released from Illinois' prison system each year, many of whom don't know they can participate in democracy.
“When I come across many of these neighbors in my community, they believe they have lost their right to vote forever, and that is a shame," she said.
The ACLU of Illinois applauded the measures, saying they will help reduce the number of people who return to prison.