Sometimes reporting on the historic nature of an election can overlook important issues for the surrounding community. But Joel Caston’s history-making victory is a part of a powerful narrative for community engagement and self-governance.
Elected earlier this month to the Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Caston is the first incarcerated elected official in Washington, D.C. According to the Washington City Paper, this particular commissioner had been vacant since it was created in 2012.
The advocacy group Neighbors for Justice assisted incarcerated folks in the D.C. jail with ensuring representation for the area. Caston’s district includes the D.C. jail along with a nearby women’s shelter and luxury apartments.
Caston and four other candidates, all of whom are incarcerated, ran for the seat. NBC News reported Caston highlighted his work as a worship leader and editor of the jail’s paper. He has also taken courses at Georgetown, learned multiple languages, and found ways to engage in his community.
While it’s an unpaid position, serving on the commission allows D.C. residents to have increased input in their communities. Commissioners are a voice for the residents of the districts they represent and help inform government decision-making related to their respective neighborhoods.
As noted by the DCist, Maine and Vermont were previously the only states where people did not lose their voting rights due to a felony conviction. Allowing incarcerated people to participate in the local election process corrects a longstanding injustice.
In most parts of the country, incarcerated people are counted as residents for resource allocations and representation but generally have no say in the process. After D.C. passed a provision restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies last year, a new possibility for civic engagement emerged.
D.C. is the first jurisdiction to restore voting rights to people incarcerated for a felony conviction. People incarcerated for misdemeanors or who are awaiting trial do not lose their right to vote.
The June election came after a technicality left the district without a commissioner in the recent municipal election. On its website, Neighbors for Justice highlighted the months-long process to get a new election approved in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission members also took steps to allow for virtual or hybrid meetings beyond the pandemic to ensure an incarcerated commissioner could participate.
In a recent tweet thread, Commissioner Alison Horn highlighted the transformative nature of Caston’s win. While some have made Caston’s incarceration an issue, Horn said Caston should not be reduced to only one part of his story.
“We should be grateful that against the odds, in his 26 years living behind bars in conditions meant to break his spirit, he has vigorously pursued his education and stands before us determined to better his community,” tweeted Horn.
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