Today, nearly 4.4 million people in America have families, own homes and have even started their own businesses. They are pursuing the American Dream with one exception — they cannot vote. Felony conviction laws are blocking them from the ballot box. This barrier to full participation in our country’s democracy underscores why felony disenfranchisement is as much an international issue as incarceration rates and prison reform. On December 10th — Human Rights Day — we must continue to make this injustice visible. It is no secret that the U.S. is home to more than 2.4 million prisoners, surpassing countries like Russia, Brazil, and South Africa combined. The data becomes even more jarring when broken down by race. Blacks, who constitute roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for 38 percent of the prison population by state. Hispanics, who make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, account for 21 percent of the state prison population. Whites, who account for about 78 percent of the country’s population, only make up 35 percent of the prison population.
These disparities are rooted in systemic failures that include faulty policing policies and skewed sentencing guidelines.
The collateral consequences of our nation’s prison culture are far-reaching as they break up families, increase poverty, restrict education, criminalize youth and cause fissures in our democracy.
Laws preventing returning prisoners from voting originated prior to the Reconstruction era in an attempt to stem the growth of the black voting bloc and black electorate. Today, the effects are the same. The latest data reveals that nearly six million people cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws practiced in across 48 states and the District of Columbia. More than two million of those disenfranchised are black.