Felony Disenfranchisement

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The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News 3/20/09

Florida: More Reform Needed In light of delays in processing applications for the restoration of voting rights, the ACLU has requested that the state automatically restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of residents with felony convictions who have completed sentence. "It's very hard for anyone to know what's going on," said Muslima Lewis, a senior lawyer for the ACLU was quoted as saying by the New York Times. "The rules are convoluted and hard to understand." Reforms in 2007 spearheaded by Governor Crist eased the restoration process, but it remains plagued by delays and a lack of clarity as to eligibility requirements and the protocol of applying. The Sentencing Project Executive Director Marc Mauer said that there have been improvements in the state, but he added, "depending on which estimate you look at, prior to these numbers, there were as many as 900,000 people who have completed their sentences but were still ineligible." In some cases, the rights of individuals have actually been restored, but they are unaware of this fact because they have not been contacted by officials. The ACLU recently released a report stating that the restoration process is bureaucratic and confusing even for state officials and that many people are improperly being denied the right to vote. Minnesota: Lawmakers Support Voting Rights Two bills aimed at restoring voting rights to individuals with a felony conviction upon release from prison and providing notification about voting rights both passed out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. The bills will now go on to the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. Tennessee: Policymakers Approve of 'Poll Tax' The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation requiring payment of all fines and court costs before an individual becomes eligible to have their voting rights restored. Currently, a person convicted of a felony must be pardoned, discharged from custody or supervision, and have paid all restitution to the victim of the offense to have their rights of suffrage restored, Clarksville Onlinereported. Virginia: April Symposium Discusses Effects of Disenfranchisement Marc Mauer will be speaking about the impact of disenfranchisement on communities of color as part of a symposium at the University of Virginia, April 16 and 17. Professor Angela Y. Davis of the University of California, Santa Cruz will headline the conference entitled, "The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequality and Justice," hosted by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. Wisconsin: Paroled Citizen Charged for Voting in November Election An elections task force has charged a 31 year old, formerly incarcerated Milwaukee man with unlawfully registering to vote and voting on November 4, 2008 without having had his rights restored. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org.

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News 3/6/09

National: Bipartisan, Religious Support for Federal Disenfranchisement Reform Erika Wood of the Brennan Center authored a Politico article on the Poverty Forum's support for the Democracy Restoration Act. The coalition of Christian leaders and policy experts from both conservative and liberal camps sent its recommendations to the Obama administration in what has been called a "rare instance of true bipartisanship." Federal legislation, soon to be introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), would restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who are out of prison and living in the community. Alabama: Lobbying Against Disenfranchisement Bill Grassroots advocate Kenneth Glasgow of The Ordinary People's Society is lobbying against a bill that would revoke voting rights from individuals regardless of the offense they were charged with, the Dothan Eagle reported. The proposed bill would increase the number of crimes that involve moral turpitude from about 15 to more than 70 and revoke the voting rights of people charged with those crimes. Currently, individuals who have committed a crime of moral turpitude - including murder, robbery and rape - are disenfranchised. State Rep. Randy Wood, (R-Anniston), the House sponsor for the bill backed by Attorney General Troy King, said individuals who would lose their right to vote under the proposed bill would truly show that they are interested in being a part of society by applying to the state Pardons and Parole Board to have their rights restored, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. "I'm not saying I don't want people to have the right to vote, but losing the right to vote is part of the punishment," said Rep. Wood. "This way, if you serve your time and paid your debts to society, you can apply to have your voting rights restored and go vote." Sen. Bobby Singleton, (D-Greensboro) is drafting a bill that would do exactly the opposite of the King bill by giving individuals who have completed their sentences automatic restoration. "When you take a person's voting rights, you take them from being able to get public housing, public assistance, student aid, Pell Grants. They can't get a business license," Glasgow said. "It puts them in a position where they have a sentence for a certain amount of time, but the collateral consequences last a lifetime. Those of us who have been incarcerated who have paid our dues to society are not second-class citizens, we're second-chance citizens." Today, a press conference is scheduled at noon at Freedom Park, followed by a Criminal Justice Summit from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Wallace College Hank Sanders Technology Center, Meeting Room 105. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org.

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News 2/27/09

National: Christian, Policy Leaders Unite to End Poverty, Disenfranchisement A coalition of Christian leaders and policy experts met this month in an effort to develop policy suggestions to the Obama administration on issues that contribute to poverty, the Washington Post reported. One of the issues documented included restoring voting rights to citizens charged with felony offenses. Representatives of the group were scheduled to present their proposals to the Obama administration last week. The group was founded by progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis and a former speechwriter for then-President George W. Bush and current Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson. Minnesota: Formerly Incarcerated Resident Sent to Jail for Voting A 25-year-old formerly incarcerated citizen in Minnesota was sentenced to 30 days in jail for casting a ballot in the November election, the Associated Press reported. Eric Stephen Willems plead guilty to a gross misdemeanor of illegal voting and his original one-year sentence was stayed. He must also serve three years probation after his release. He stated that he must have forgotten being told when he was released from prison that he couldn't vote. In Minnesota, individuals are banned from voting until their sentence, including probation and parole, has been completed. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org.

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News 2/24/09

Washington: Voting Rights Legislation Receives Editorial, Police Support Writing a Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed in support of voting rights legislation being considered in Washington State, a police chief and county sheriff stated that reenfranchisement was part of "good law enforcement." Gil Kerlikowske, chief of the Seattle Police Department and John Lovick, Snohomish County sheriff, wrote: "We support this legislation and do not think that the financial obligation should be a barrier to being able to vote. Why? Voting is an important way to connect people to their communities, which in turn, helps them avoid going back to crime. We want those who leave prison to become productive and law-abiding citizens. Voting puts them on that path." Following the guest column, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board contributed its own view on disenfranchisement, calling the proposed measure "excellent legislation." Currently, the law strips voting rights from people with felony convictions who have outstanding court restitution and other fees which incur interest. The editorial states: "Combined with sociological factors, the current law has the dire effect of eliminating 17 percent of African-Americans and 10 percent of Latinos from voting eligibility. That's shockingly excessive. Legislators and Gov. Chris Gregoire should re-enfranchise those who have served their terms." The Columbian also published an editorial arguing that the time dedicated to the administration of checking individuals' balances is unnecessary. It also stated that the current law was not only a modern poll tax, but also racially discriminatory and "just plain malicious." Maryland: Bill Proposes Eligibility Notification Upon Release from Prison The Baltimore City Branch NAACP worked to help introduce into the Maryland General Assembly H.B. 483, which would require the Commissioner of Correction to provide written information on voter eligibility upon inmates' release from a State correctional facility. The bill, introduced by Del. Samuel Rosenberg and Sen. Lisa Gladden, would also require the Commissioner to work with the State Board of Elections in notice issue. Virginia/Kentucky: Disenfranchisement Reform Being Considered by Strictest States Project Vote's blog, TPM Café, featured an article on reform movements in the two states that permanently disenfranchise all citizens with felony offenses. Lawmakers in Virginia and Kentucky are considering reforming the law which bans that population from voting and requires people with felony convictions to seek permission to vote from their governors. South Dakota: Election Officials' Misunderstanding Disenfranchises Two Citizens "I will never get the chance to go back and make my voice heard," stated a woman who was erroneously denied the right to vote in the Nov. 4 general election, the Star Tribune reported. American Indians, Eileen Janis and Kim Colhoff are suing government officials in South Dakota because they say their felony criminal histories were improperly interpreted by election officials. State law disenfranchises those who have been sentenced to prison, according to the ACLU, but Janis and Colhoff were sentenced to probation, and thus should have been granted the right to vote. "It's hard not to feel like a second-class citizen when such a fundamental right is stolen in such a random way," said Janis. Nancy Abudu, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said cases such as this one illustrates "the tragedy of what happens when election officials do not know how to administer the law." - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News 2/5/09

Virginia: Disenfranchisement Bill Condensed, Compromised The House Privileges and Elections Committee has reviewed at least six bills that would streamline restoring voting rights to individuals with felony offenses, according to the Progress-Index. Currently, individuals are permanently banned from voting unless their rights are restored by the governor. One proposal, submitted by Del. Rosalyn R. Dance, would amend Virginia's constitution by adding, "In addition, the General Assembly may provide by law for the restoration of civil rights to persons who have been convicted of felonies and who have completed service of their sentences, subject to the conditions, requirements, and classifications set forth in that law." A second proposal, by Del. Onzlee Ware, which the committee has recommended for approval, mimics Dance's bill, but restricts the restoration of rights to nonviolent offenders. The main committee now must consider whether to forward that bill for debate by the full House. "Half a loaf is better than none," said Dance who is now backing Ware's bill. "The fact that we've got colleagues on both sides of the aisle to look at this is a big step forward." Arizona: Amicus Brief Questions 'Poll Tax' The Brennan Center for Justice submitted an amicus brief in support of appellants in Coronado v. Napolitano, a case that challenges Arizona's statutory requirement that everyone with a felony conviction must pay all court-imposed fines and restitution before being eligible to vote. The brief questions whether Arizona's law violates the Twenty-Fourth Amendment. Visit the Brennan Center's web site to view the amicus brief. Washington: Lawmaker Takes a Stand for Reenfranchisement State Rep. Jeannie Darneille is pushing a bill that would change the state's law that currently bans individuals with felony offenses from voting if they have outstanding court ordered fines and fees, according to a Spokesman-Review blog. "It's not real freedom if you're excluded from any say in decisions that govern your life," Darneille said. "Basing anyone's voting right on how quickly they can pay a financial debt is unfair and un-American." In July 2007, the state's high court upheld the law banning voting until individuals have completed all the terms of their sentence, including payments. International: Journalist Votes in Iraqi Prison Iraqi television journalist, Muntazer al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush in Baghdad in December, cast his vote in his country's provincial election, the Herald Sun reported. Unlike the varied disenfranchisement laws in the United States, all individuals incarcerated in Iraq are eligible to vote - even if charged with high-profile crimes. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information: e-mail -- [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org.

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News 1/30/09

California: Appeals Court Denies Claim That State Disenfranchisement Violates 14th Amendment A California state court of appeals denied a petition requesting the court direct elections officials to register certain persons in prison or on parole for a felony conviction, arguing that only persons convicted of common law crimes should be disenfranchised. The plaintiffs argued that Section 2 of the 14th Amendment only permits states to disenfranchise persons "for participation in rebellion or other crime" when those crimes were felonies at common law. These are defined as: treason, murder, manslaughter, mayhem, rape, arson, burglary, robbery, larceny, and sodomy. The plaintiffs claimed that the framers of the Constitution did not intend for "other crime" to encompass the broad range of felonies that currently populate state and federal statutes. The court disagreed, highlighting three key reasons. First, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its primary decision regarding felony disenfranchisement, Richardson v. Ramirez, never once referred to common law felonies in upholding the practice, but simply applied the ruling to all felonies. Secondly, the word "crime" in other parts of the U.S. Constitution is construed to apply more broadly than simply common law crimes. And, finally, the contemporary definition of crime in the mid- 19th Century, when the 14th Amendment was constructed, applied to more than felonies at common law. Virginia: Lawmakers Working Toward Reform Together Virginia law currently states that individuals seeking to restore their right to vote must wait between three to five years following completion of sentence before they may apply. Legislators, however, are working to reform this law by sponsoring separate constitutional amendments that would restore voting rights after completion of sentence, the Henrico Citizen reported. "During the last election, we realized how important voting rights are," Delegate Roslyn C. Tyler said. "If inmates have paid their debts to society, I think their rights should be restored. If we don't do something to help the process, they're going to return to the penal system again, and so it's a revolving door." A resolution must be passed by the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions and then approved by voters in a statewide election. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News 1/23/09

Maine: NAACP to Hold Annual Voter Registration Drive in Maine Prisons After negotiating with the Department of Corrections, the NAACP will now be able to hold annual voter registration drives at every prison facility in Maine. In honor of the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the annual drive this year will run for a week beginning August 6, and span six state-run facilities. Maine and Vermont are the only states that allow inmates to vote. To read more, see CorrectionsOne.com. Washington: State on Its Way to Easing Voting Process A felon voting rights bill was introduced this week in Washington State in an effort to restore rights after completion of sentence, the Seattle Times reported. Currently, individuals must pay all court fines and petition the court in order to get their voting rights restored. Supported by the ACLU, HB-1517, was introduced by Jeannie Darneille (D-Tacoma), who has introduced similar legislation over the past nine sessions. She said she is confident the bill will pass this session. A companion bill is being introduced in the Senate by Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle.) International: Inmates to Vote in Next Election The Independent Electoral Commission in Kwazulu-Natal, a province of South Africa, has decided to allow patients in hospitals and prison inmates to vote in this year's elections to ensure those incarcerated can exercise their constitutional right, the Sowetan reported. "We have a special programme for prisoners in correctional facilities. We will begin with voter education and then register them," said commission electoral officer, Mawethu Mosery. "Come election day, we will help them to cast their votes. This programme will also include awaiting trial prisoners," he continued. Virginia: Disenfranchisement Undermines Democracy, Faith in Prison System In a Daily Press letter to the editor, a Williamsburg resident has urged her fellow Virginians to contact lawmakers to make the restoration process for individuals with felony offenses less time consuming. " ... In a society that places such an emphasis on 'getting out there and voting,' I'm wondering why we are still restricting the voting rights of some of our Virginia citizens, prohibiting them from participating in the democratic process," Kriston Rhodes wrote. Virginia is one of only two states that permanently disenfranchises all persons with felony convictions. Individuals with nonviolent offenses seeking restoration must wait three years after completing their sentence, while those with violent offenses must wait five years. "Failing to restore voting rights to Virginia citizens not only undermines the importance of participation in a democracy but also demonstrates a lack of faith in our prison system," she continued. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org

The White House: Obama on Drug Policy

The incoming Obama administration has posted its agenda online at the White House web site Whitehouse.gov. While neither drug policy nor criminal justice merited its own category in the Obama agenda, several of the broad categories listed do contain references to drug and crime policy and provide a strong indication of the administration's proclivities.

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But before getting into what the agenda mentions, it's worth noting what the agenda does not mention: marijuana. There is not a word about the nation's most widely used illicit drug or the nearly 900,000 arrests a year generated by marijuana prohibition. Nor, despite Obama campaign pledges, is there a word about medical marijuana or ending the DEA raids on providers in California -- which doesn't necessarily mean he will go back on his word. It could well be that the issue is seen as too marginal to be included in the broad agenda for national change. With the first raid on a medical marijuana clinic during the Obama administration hitting this very week, reformers are anxiously hoping it is only the work of Bush holdovers and not a signal about the future.

Reformers may find themselves pleased with some Obama positions, but they will be less happy with others. The Obama administration wants to reduce inequities in the criminal justice system, but it also taking thoroughly conventional positions on other drug policy issues.

But let's let them speak for themselves. Here are the relevant sections of the Obama agenda:

Under Civil Rights:

  • End Racial Profiling: President Obama and Vice President Biden will ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal incentives to state and local police departments to prohibit the practice.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support: President Obama and Vice President Biden will provide job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society. Obama and Biden will also create a prison-to-work incentive program to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates.
  • Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: President Obama and Vice President Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.
  • Expand Use of Drug Courts: President Obama and Vice President Biden will give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.
  • Promote AIDS Prevention: In the first year of his presidency, President Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. The President will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. The President also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users. President Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma -- too often tied to homophobia -- that continues to surround HIV/AIDS.

Under Foreign Policy:

  • Afghanistan: Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security -- the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan's economic development. Obama and Biden will demand the Afghan government do more, including cracking down on corruption and the illicit opium trade.

Under Rural Issues:

  • Combat Methamphetamine: Continue the fight to rid our communities of meth and offer support to help addicts heal.

Under Urban Issues:

  • Support Local Law Enforcement: President Obama and Vice President Biden are committed to fully funding the COPS program to put 50,000 police officers on the street and help address police brutality and accountability issues in local communities. Obama and Biden also support efforts to encourage young people to enter the law enforcement profession, so that our local police departments are not understaffed because of a dearth of qualified applicants.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Supports: America is facing an incarceration and post-incarceration crisis in urban communities. Obama and Biden will create a prison-to-work incentive program, modeled on the successful Welfare-to-Work Partnership, and work to reform correctional systems to break down barriers for ex-offenders to find employment.

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News/Updates 12/11/08

Pennsylvania: Public Service Versus Political Message Debate Taken to Court The Pittsburgh League of Young Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union were scheduled to appear in court this week after having sued the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which refused to run a 2006 ad educating formerly incarcerated individuals on their voting rights. ACLU attorney Witold "Vic" Walczak told the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review, "While we understand that people may view some of the ACLU's work as controversial, we never expected that to be the case when it comes to informing people about their rights, especially as it relates to voting," said. The Port Authority stated that the ad violates the agency's political message policy. The ACLU, however, said the ad is a public service and does not promote for whom to vote. National: Re-enfranchisement is "The Right Thing to Do" An editorial by John Timoney, Miami police chief and president of the Police Executive Research Forum, was published in the organization's November newsletter, Subject to Debate on the new administration's response to both disenfranchisement and crack cocaine reform. He wrote: "I just sincerely believe that this is the right thing to do. I don't think we should give criminals an excuse for not reforming themselves because they are bitter about having had one of their most important rights-the right to vote- taken away. I think it is better to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of offenders resuming a full, healthy, productive life. Some say offenders on parole should not be allowed to vote, because the term of parole is part of their sentence. But my sense is, once you've cleared the four walls of the jail, your right to vote should be restored." Virginia: Hypocritical Laws, Policies A Virginia resident wrote a letter to the Free-lance Star stating his opinion on the recent conviction of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. "How is it that a convicted felon in this country must forfeit his right to vote, yet a convicted felon may hold public office and introduce legislation, such as the law that says felons may not vote," wrote Fredericksburg resident Peter Mealy. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News/Updates 11/20/08

Alabama: Voting for the First Time in Almost 40 Years Alabama resident Ussery Knight cast his vote for the first time since 1970, according to a blog posted on The Ordinary People's Society Web site. "The last time Knight, 62, had the right to vote, gas was 36 cents per gallon, the Dow sat at 839, 'Patton' was the big movie at the box office and 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' was beginning a seven-year run on television," the article stated. Knight, who served probation for a felony offense, recently registered to vote after learning about the state's felony voting rights laws with help from TOPS. Florida: Editorial Supports Democracy for All A Miami Herald editorial focused on the significance of the election for those elected into office, and those who cast votes. Many Florida citizens with felony offense records were able to vote for the first time as a result of Gov. Charles Crist's efforts to restore voting rights and speed up the application process for that population. "Democracy is strengthened by encouraging every eligible American to vote," the editorial stated. "This is how America stays strong and free." Pennsylvania: Is Disenfranchising Voters Really the "Right Thing to Do?" A letter to the editor was featured in The Mercury questioning the rationale for disenfranchisement laws. "I suggest that the people of the United States take a good long look at the true scales of justice in our nation," the author stated. "Look closely at where taking away a convicted felon's right to vote falls in being the right thing to do when measured against the actions of so many other perpetrators of hate, brutality, unethical behaviors, and the destruction of innocence. I believe the scales would tip greatly in favor of the felon's right to vote when pit against so many other weightier issues of our country." - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information -- e-mail: [email protected], web: http://www.sentencingproject.org

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