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Judicial candidates make their case to voters in the Genesee County Jail

Genesee County Jail Judicial Candidate Event 1
Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio
Johnell Allen-Bey of the criminal justice advocacy organization Nation Outside asked questions of judicial candidates at a forum held inside the Genesee County Jail on Monday.

Candidates for several seats in the Michigan court system made an unusual campaign stop on Monday, making an appeal to voters in orange jumpsuits at the Genesee County Jail.

Contenders for seats on the 7th Judicial Circuit Court serving Genesee County, the 2nd District Court of Appeals, and the Michigan Supreme Court spoke to a couple dozen registered voters detained in jail. Most are serving time in pre-trial detention, meaning they are waiting to appear before a court for their alleged crimes, and have the right to vote since eligible voters who are incarcerated are only barred from voting while serving a sentence in Michigan.

“Every person that you see in our jail [system] is impacted by some part of the justice system,” said Johnell Allen-Bey of Nation Outside, the criminal justice advocacy organization that spearheaded the candidate forum. “If you're impacted unjustly, you want to know the judge, you want to be able to know that the person who got the control of your life right is someone that you can relate to, somebody that you know, someone who took out time to come in here and say, ‘Hey, this is what I stand for. This is who I am.’ And I think that's what this whole day has been all about.”

Candidate forums and voter registration drives are exceedingly rare for people detained in Michigan’s jails, according to a September 2021 report issued by Nation Outside and another advocacy group, the Voting Access for All Coalition, which called the limited opportunities for people in jail to cast ballots “a failure of our democracy.”

Of Michigan’s 67 county jail authorities that responded to a survey by the report’s authors, 18 indicated that they provide support for people in their facilities to register to vote. Only 27 noted that they have procedures in place to help people in their custody request, complete, and return absentee ballots. Gratiot, Houghton, Huron, Isabella, and Saginaw Counties, for example, pay postage on absentee ballots, while Genesee County has deputized individuals like Allen-Bey to deliver completed ballots to election officials.

Allen-Bey said about 300 people – roughly half of the average daily jail population – in the Genesee County Jail was registered to vote, many of them through the efforts of Nation Outside.

"I think there's a lot of things that guys that are incarcerated need to know about the judicial process and voting rights in particular, so it’s a really good process,” said Greg Kennedy, who has spent the past several months in jail waiting for his court date.

He added that he considers the right to vote “sacrosanct.” Kennedy cast a ballot in the August primary while in jail and plans to vote in the elections next month. Getting to hear from candidates who make decisions for people in the criminal justice system while tied up in the system made a big impression on him.

Judicial Candidates at a forum at the Genessee County Jail
Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio
Candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein makes an appeal to voters at the Genessee County Jail, seated beside Michigan Supreme Court candidate Kyra Harris Bolden, and Court of Appeals Judge Sima Patel.

“I think it's incredibly important because there's so much misinformation that goes around about who can vote and where they vote,” said Kyra Harris Bolden, a current Democratic state lawmaker who is running for a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. “I love that the Genesee County Sheriff's Department took the bull by the horns and said, We're going to educate people and we're gonna make sure that they know who they're voting for.”

Incumbent Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein shared that sentiment. “These are the folks that we're here to serve,” he told Michigan Radio. “These are the people that need to have the protections and the safeguards of our system.” He cited the large backlog of cases before district and circuit courts, and the need for courts to re-open for in-person hearings as his biggest priorities to address.

Other candidates who shared their views with people detained in the jail were Sima Patel and Michael Warren who are running for positions on the Court of Appeals, as well as 7th Circuit Court judge contenders Dawn Weier and Mary Hood.

The jail will host another election forum featuring candidates for the mayor and school board in Flint later this week.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Radio's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.