July 31, 2020

When Will Their Sentences End?

If incarceration is part of paying a debt to society, for America’s 6.1 million people with felony convictions, disenfranchisement can mean that the debt is never fully paid.

by Susan E. Stutz

Our nation has a ugly history of oppression.

We took this land from its native people with a campaign of coercion and violence. We enslaved more than 4,000,000 people of color, lynching 3.446 of them between 1882 and 1968 (and those are just the acts of lynching we can confirm). We had a civil war fighting over the issue of whether or not we could continue to own people as though they were chattel. We have created flags that honor the slave-owning days of the past. We have erected statues to pay homage to the men who established the racist policies our country has nurtured and furthered during her 250-year history. And, as though all of that were not enough, when the freedom our enslaved population deserved was finally acknowledged, we crafted criminal laws, black codes, and state constitutions meant to keep them in chains forever.

Following the Civil War, when many states were seeking statehood, Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama (among others) added disenfranchisement amendments to their constitutions and established criminal laws with their former slaves in mind. Convictions for burglary, arson, and theft--crimes they believed their former slaves were most likely to commit--included disenfranchisement. Notably, crimes such as murder did not. With every hand raised in violence towards former slaves being justified without need for an explanation, it is not hard to see the reasoning behind a murder conviction not including a side order of disenfranchisement. It was mostly white people who were guilty of murder back then and their civil rights still mattered--have always mattered, felony conviction or not.

When released from custody, returning citizens face significant challenges as they attempt to reintegrate into society. Chief among them is gainful employment, as many businesses do not employ individuals who have been convicted of a felony. In fact, many applications now inquire as to whether or not the applicant has ever been arrested and many potential employers discount the application of those who answer in the affirmative, regardless of the outcome of the arrest. Without employment, the challenges faced by individuals with prior convictions increases exponentially. Homelessness becomes a real possibility as does returning to incarceration as a result of their committing additional crimes just to feed and clothe themselves. And, barring access to the ballot box only adds insult to injury by not allowing returning citizens a say in their local, state, and national governance. No vote means no say in who sits on the city council, local school board, or county commission, which translates to them having been effectively silenced when it comes to what happens in their local communities.

Many states have seen fit to at least reinstate the franchise once a person with a felony conviction has completed their period of incarceration, parole, probation, and/or have paid their financial obligations (or a combination thereof). There are several states, however, that disenfranchise their citizens indefinitely or require that returning citizens obtain a Governor’s pardon or favorable ruling from a clemency board to regain the right to vote. In states like Florida, however, obtaining a pardon is a pipe-dream under the previous and current administration’s clemency process which was found to be inherently problematic. There are only two states that do not disenfranchise their convicted persons at all--Vermont and Maine.

In the last ten years, there have been 874 pieces of proposed legislation related to voting rights for individuals with felony convictions, with 306 having been filed in 2019 and 2020 alone. Of that number, there are 10 states plus the District of Columbia with 15 pieces of pending legislation for which the window of opportunity has not yet passed us by. Why, you ask? Because many states have convened or will be convening or reconvening their legislature later than usual as a result of COVID adjournments. There are silver linings in even the darkest of clouds.

Here are the bills currently pending:

California CA ACA 6: “Directs the Legislature to provide for the disqualification of electors who are serving a state or federal prison sentence for the conviction of a felony. Deletes the requirement that the Legislature provide for the disqualification of electors while on parole for the conviction of a felony.” Translation: individuals who are on parole would be eligible to vote.

California CA A 646: “Removes the prohibition against voting by a parolee, thereby allowing a parolee to preregister, register, and vote.” Translation: individuals who are on parole would be eligible to vote.

District of Columbia DC B 324: “Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019: As introduced it expands voting rights to residents incarcerated for felony convictions.” Translation: people incarcerated on felony charges will be able to vote.

Georgia GA S 414: "Relates to registration of voters, provide that any person convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude shall not register to, remain registered to, or vote and to enumerate such felony offenses, provides for a definition, provides for related matters, provides for an effective date, repeals conflicting laws.” Translation: there would be a list set out in the statute which defines crimes of “moral turpitude”.

Illinois IL H 2249: “Amends the Unified Code of Corrections, provides that 45 days prior to the scheduled discharge of a person committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections, the Department shall give the person information about obtaining a standard Identification Card or a limited-term Identification Card, information about voter registration and may distribute information prepared by the State Board of Elections and may enter into an interagency contract with the State Board of Elections.” Translation: when an individual is going to be released from prison, they must be provided with information about re-registering to vote.

Illinois IL H 4377: "Amends the Election Code, repeals provisions that prohibit a person that is serving a sentence of confinement in any penal institution from voting until his or her release from confinement.” Translation: individuals will be able to vote during their period of incarceration.

Massachusetts MA S 395: "An act improving knowledge about voting rights.” Translation: the Secretary of State would be required to create and distribute a pamphlet with information for returning citizens about their voting rights and how elections are conducted in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts MA S 405: "Restores voting rights to incarcerated felons.” Translation: individuals serving a felony sentence will be able to vote.

Massachusetts MA H 669: "Increases voter registration and participation of people incarcerated for felony convictions to help prevent recidivism.” Translation: correctional institutions would have an obligation to provide information to eligible voters who are incarcerated on how to obtain an absentee ballot and to help non-eligible individuals get pre-registered to vote in anticipation of their release from custody.

Nebraska NE LR 286: "Proposes a Constitutional amendment to remove felony convictions other than treason from being a disqualification for voting.” Translation: the only felony conviction that would take away the right to vote would be treason.

New Hampshire NH H 1651: "Amends the absentee voting affidavits to make clear that certain persons confined to penal institutions may vote by absentee ballot.” Translation: absentee ballots would include information about certain incarcerated persons voting by absentee ballot.

New Jersey NJ A 728: "Requires correctional facilities to provide voting rights information packets to inmates.” Translation: returning citizens would be provided with information related to their voting rights upon release from custody.

New York NY S 2160: "Relates to providing notice of voting rights to persons released from local jails, includes written information distributed by the board of elections.” Translation: returning citizens would be provided information on voting once they are released from custody.

New York NY A 8909: "Proposes a constitutional amendment authorizing voting by incarcerated people.” Translation: incarceration would no longer be a barrier to voting.

South Carolina SC H 3319: "Provides that the Department of Corrections and the Department of Probation, parole and pardon services shall inform a person who has been convicted of a felony or an offense against the election laws and has served the sentence imposed for the conviction, including probation and parole time unless sooner pardoned, that he is eligible to register to vote.” Translation: returning citizens would be told that their voting rights are restored to them upon completion of their sentence.

Voting is one of our most precious rights. It is a freedom that sets us apart from the monarchical rule that led to this country’s formation in the first place. Restoring the right to vote to our returning citizens is an important step in aiding their meaningful transition back into community life. Additionally, civic participation on the part of our returning citizens has been linked with lower rates of recidivism.

Only a life sentence should last a lifetime and barring returning citizens from voting means just that--a sentence that lasts a lifetime.

What you can do

If you live in one of the states listed above, send state to 50409 and encourage your legislature to support the pending legislation that restores the right to vote, provides for a campaign of information directed specifically at returning citizens, and moves them one step closer to participating in democracy once again.

Have something else on your mind? Send governor or house to 50409 and lobby your representative to take action on other issues that are important to you.



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