OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.
Voters in Washington, D.C., chose a convicted murderer who is still serving time in prison to serve on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Joel Caston, who was elected commissioner for 7F07 in Ward 7, told the Washington Informer that things were “going well” and he has a new appreciation for elected officials.
“Working a few weeks as a commissioner makes me realize the hard work elected officials perform. It makes me respect public officials even more. As an elected official, you are navigating moving pieces. Plus, you are constantly meeting with your constituents and colleagues,” he said.
Caston has been behind bars since 1994 for first-degree murder; he received a 35-years-to-life sentence in 1996, but he’s up for parole in December.
Until then, he’s a jailed commissioner — the first one ever in D.C.
The District’s newest advisory neighborhood commissioner is the first incarcerated person to win office in D.C.
Joel Castón, 44, will advise and provide recommendations on neighborhood issues to the city council. He has been incarcerated since he was 18. https://t.co/DP0PUkul6Q
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) June 17, 2021
The Washington Informer further notes:
On June 16, he made history with his election as a commissioner; the first time a resident of the D.C. Jail won elected office in the District. His July swearing-in took place with D.C. Councilmembers Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) attending, along with family and friends. Caston represents the residents at the D.C. Jail, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, and the Park Kennedy apartment complex. He has tentatively been scheduled for parole and release in December.
As a commissioner, Caston deals with a wide range of issues such as zoning, traffic, economic development projects, liquor licenses, street maintenance, and trash collection. To help him do his work, the officials at the D.C. Jail have created an office space for Caston. He has a desk, a landline phone, a computer, and a television. Caston expressed his surprise at the flurry of activities he has had since assuming the office.
Since being incarcerated, Caston has not only gotten his GED but he’s also managed to take courses at Georgetown University and has studied and learned several languages — Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, French, while also “sharpening” his English skills.
“In the jail, people are constantly asking me questions and telling me about their concerns,” he said.
So — how did this happen, exactly?
“Opportunity knocked last July when the nation’s capital decided to let people vote from prison. District officials quickly registered 400 of the 2,600 eligible convicts whose vote would count as much as that of any law-abiding citizen,” The Horn News reported.
“ABC News gushed that the decision “pushed the boundaries of voting rights and racial justice,” since a large percentage of inmates are Black. But then most victims of Black criminals are also Black. So that doesn’t seem like a win … except for the Democrats,” the site added.
Caston won his election with a grand total of 48 votes, all but one of which came from fellow prisoners.
At present, two states — Maine and Vermont — allow incarcerated people to vote. And Democrats (and Democratic allies) have been working to expand that nationwide. In 2020, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed sending ballots to prisoners including people who were convicted of terrorism.
But the idea is spreading, and the Democrat-friendly media is catching on as well.
“Less than 1% of the nation’s estimated 1.8 million incarcerated residents have the right to cast ballots from behind bars, according to The Sentencing Project,” ABC reports.
And in Congress, majority Democrats’ H.R. 1, a voting reform bill that essentially nationalizes most elections, would also allow incarcerated people to cast ballots.
As for Caston, he can’t actually visit the parts of the city he represents. But he uses email.