Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Felon DisenfranchisementPanel

Today ACS joined IMPACT, CJAN, the ACLU and CRLS in hosting a panel discussion on felon disenfranchisement. The panel featured Professor Richard Briffault of CLS, an election law expert, Jenign Garrett, staff attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Glenn Martin, Associate Vice President of Policy and Advocacy of the Fortune Society.

Professor Briffault began the panel by outlining the dimensions of felon disenfranchisement. Felon exclusion currently constitutes the largest voting exclusion in the United States. About four million people, or 2% of the adult population, are currently denied the right to vote because of a felony. Briffault identified three major categories of individuals impacted by felon disenfranchisement. About one third of the individuals impacted are those currently incarcerated. 46 states currently disenfranchise those who are incarcerated. A second major category is comprised of individuals currently in the criminal justice system but not incarcerated, such as individuals on parole or probation. This represents a third of disenfranchised felons, as 32 states deny the right to vote to people on parole and 29 to people on probation. The final group of disenfranchised individuals are those who are currently free but were previously convicted of a felony. About 14 states prevent ex-felons from voting without going through extensive procedures to regain the right to vote. Briffault noted that in states like Alabama and Florida that have lifetime disenfranchisement these categories can represent as much as one third of African American male residents.

Briffault traced the laws denying the right to vote to felons to post-Reconstruction statutes that were designed to make it harder for African Americans to vote. Strangely, many states that deny felons the right to vote still count them in the apportionment of state and congressional seats – this explains why upstate New York (home to numerous prisons) is so well represented.

Garrett then spoke about the Voting Rights Act’s impact of felon disenfranchisement. Because the VRA was designed to prevent racial discrimination in voting regardless of its form, Garrett argues that Section 2 should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws as fellow laws in effect discriminate against minorities. Garrett discussed a recent case in which the District Court for Eastern Washington found that discrimination in the criminal justice system impeded the ability of minorities to vote because of felon disenfranchisement. Though minorities make up only 12% of the Washington population, they comprise 36% of those who have lost the right to vote due to felon disenfranchisement. However, the District Court held that this evidence of discrimination did not mean that the VRA was violated; instead, the District Court ruled that discrimination occuring today not rooted in historical discrimination does not violate the VRA. This case with go to the 9th Circuit next month. Garrett also discussed the current challenge to Alabama’s felon voting laws, which disenfranchise individuals who commit crimes of moral turpitude, yet fail to define what crimes fall in this ambiguous category.

Finally, Glenn Martin discussed the dimensions of felon disenfranchisement in New York. Currently, about 100,000 New Yorkers are prevented from voting due to felon disenfranchisement. While New York law does not prevent those on probation from voting, many on probation are denied the right to vote due to the mistaken beliefs of local boards of elections. A previous survey by the Fortune Society found that 50% of the boards of elections in New York supplied the wrong response when asked questions about the impact of probation on an individual’s ability to vote. Following extensive efforts by the Fortune Society, a more recent survey found now 35% of the boards of elections in New York are still making such errors. The Fortune Society is continuing to address this issue and may elect to engage in litigation. Martin has also worked on efforts to pass state laws reducing or eliminating felon disenfranchisement. However, despite support in the state house, such bills have failed to get through the Republican-controlled state senate. The Fortune Society is now working on having Gov. Spitzer issue an executive order stating that anyone not incarcerated can register and vote. Martin noted that this method succeeded in Iowa and successfully stood up to legal challenges. Finally, there may be some efforts in the near future by Sen. Specter to push similar federal legislation through Congress.

2 Comments:

At 7:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Felon disenfranchisement effects families, the communitties, and unfortunately society. Ex-felons cross the social, class, educational, vocational, and artistic barriers, there is so much society loses by disenfranchising felons. One issue given very little attention is the employment barrier ex-felons face....10, 15 years after the fact all but few find meaningful employment and are subjected to lower paying jobs, careers [if you think the stigma does not prevent ex-felons from meaningful work then never mind] there has to be something done about disenfranchising felons from gainfull employment. Life, Liberty, and Happiness are our G-D given right, you would think that the gifted minds at Columbia would argue the sealing of records after a given time frame for the exclusive right to gainful emploment.

 
At 10:22 AM, Blogger A.NTOZAKE LUNDY said...

This story speaks specifically to the right to vote but touches upon the lack of employment opportunities for the former felon. As an employer who has hired across the spectrum&had BETTER experiences as well as retention with the formerly incarcerated, I find lack of employment opportunities to be the most dangerous. I have had in my employ a person convicted of murder and several convicted of state and federal drug offenses. The one constant in all of their stories is that they were all born into poverty. The persons convicted of drug offenses shared with me that their parents were simply unable to provide basic food. I will never understand that sort of existence for a child, few of us can. I was born into a middle class family where the family meal was a thing of joy. Perhaps I will never understand the multitude of ramifications the culture of poverty manifests. I just know that I will continue to employ, whenever possible, people who have not&will not be offered the opportunity elsewhere.

 

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