U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been taking stands for justice lately, for which he is to be applauded. On Feb. 11, in a speech at Georgetown University, he issued a plea for states to lift bans on voting by ex-felons, also called returning citizens. On the heels of his earlier suggestion that prosecutors and legislators re-examine mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders and disparities in crack cocaine sentences, this latest call suggests a new pattern of priorities coming out of the office of the attorney general. The New York Times predicted Holder’s suggestions would “elevate issues of criminal justice and race in the president’s second term and create a lasting civil rights legacy.” Holder is reportedly the first attorney general to take up this cause. It has been a long time coming. Laws that deny ex-offenders the vote have a long and dark history. Although felons were prevented from voting in most states from the very beginning of the republic, after the Civil War, these laws were greatly expanded in the South — and virtually all felons in those states were black. The South’s loss of the Civil War in 1865 presented former slave owners with dual dilemmas. Their captive labor supply had been liberated, and those formerly involuntary workers were going to be allowed to vote. In the words of one former slave, “bottom rail on the top.” Soon after the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, however, white entrepreneurs of the South solved both problems with two linked concepts: convict leasing and felon disenfranchisement. First, massive numbers of African-Americans were arrested for little or no reason and sent to work in mines, mills and fields, creating an almost limitless supply of effectively free labor. Under newly enhanced (and in some cases newly created) laws, these ex-felons were then forever after denied the right to vote. This process also planted in the American psyche a viciously tenacious stereotype of African-American criminality. Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book “Slavery by Another Name” describes these circumstances in excruciating detail: The depraved system has made enduring marks on today’s criminal justice landscape, in the form of felon disenfranchisement laws and racially disparate arrest, conviction and sentencing practices. Michelle Alexander, in her book “The New Jim Crow,” compares these laws and today’s mass incarceration of inmates of color to historical injustices.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down most of the old Jim Crow restrictions that prevented blacks from voting, but laws against felon voting have survived multiple court challenges; there has been little sympathy for criminals in these proceedings. Nearly 6 million Americans cannot vote because they have committed felonies. Of those, one-third are African-Americans. Twenty-two states allow ex-felons to vote after completion of sentences, parole or probation. Only in Maine and Vermont are prisoners able to vote even while in prison. Eleven other states have imposed onerous restrictions. In Florida, arguably the capital of bad voting, fully 10 percent of voting-age residents have been disqualified because of a record of imprisonment in a state penitentiary; this includes more than 1 in 5 African-Americans of voting age. The Florida constitution effectively bars nearly all ex-felons from voting for the rest of their lives. According to the Sentencing Project, Florida has the highest and most racially disparate rate of disenfranchisement. Of the estimated 5.8 million Americans nationwide who are affected by these laws, approximately one quarter of them — 1.5 million — live in Florida, where only 6 percent of the U.S. population resides.
In his speech, Holder singled out Florida for its unreasonably harsh restrictions. The state’s ban applies to an almost ludicrous range of offenses, from first-degree murder to disobeying a police officer to messing with someone’s crab trap. The statutes defining felonies are broken into three grades; the third includes some very minor offenses, but even third-degree felonies are covered under the voting ban. Figures published by Florida in 2010 indicate that 70 percent of inmates are serving sentences for nonviolent offenses and 61 percent had no prior convictions; one-fifth are drug offenders. African-Americans comprise half of all Florida prisoners but only 15 percent of the state’s overall population.
Full Article: Restore voting rights to ex-felons | Al Jazeera America.