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"How Do We Build A Mass Movement to Reverse Runaway Inequality?" with Les Leopold, author of "Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice,"May 22, 2016, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York, 860 11th Ave. (Between 58th and 59th), New York City. Between The Lines' Scott Harris and Richard Hill moderated this workshop. Listen to the audio/slideshows and more from this workshop.





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Millions with Felony Convictions Have Lost Voting Rights Across the U.S.

Posted May 21, 2014

MP3 Interview with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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In a move unusual among state election officials, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced on May 6 that her office is collaborating with advocates for the homeless and those convicted of felonies to encourage those groups of people to register and vote. In 2001, Connecticut reformed the state’s election law, allowing individuals who have completed their parole supervision to vote, even if they are still on probation.

Across the country, 35 states deny voting rights to those on probation or parole, while twelve states prohibit ex-felons from voting even after completing their full sentence, including parole or probation, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Only two states, Vermont and Maine, permit individuals serving prison sentences to participate in elections.

According to data compiled by The Sentencing Project in 2010, almost 6 million adults who were convicted of a felony don’t have a right to vote. The loss of voting rights for people convicted of felony charges disproportionately effects African Americans - with 7 percent of blacks disenfranchised, compared to 1.8 percent of the rest of the U.S. populace. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which promotes sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration through research and advocacy. Here, he asserts that leadership from the top is required to pass state legislation restoring voting rights to citizens convicted of felonies.

MARC MAUER: Four of the most restrictive – Virginia, Florida, Kentucky and Iowa – in those states, every felony conviction results in a lifetime ban on voting. So everyone is affected, resulting in huge rates of disenfranchisement there. Sometimes the particular governor in office can affect how difficult or easy it is to get your rights restored, because they have discretion. In Florida, for example, when Gov. Charlie Crist was in office, he opened up the process significantly, and well over 100,000 ex-felons had their rights restored. He was then succeeded by Gov. Rick Scott, who basically closed off the spigot completely, and almost no one has had their rights restored since he's been in office. So, it's very dependent both on the policy and then discretionary actions by governors.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Has anyone ever done a study to see what impact allowing voting has on civic participation, or even recidivism?

MARC MAUER: There's only one serious study to date by a University of Minnesota criminologist who looks at the connection between electoral participation and recidivism. And that study suggests that people who have a criminal record already and go out and vote and participate actually get beneficial effects and reduced rates of recidivism. And, you know, researchers recognize that these issues are complicated and it's not just the single act of voting that turns everything around, but that voting in combination with other pro-social behaviors does produce lower rates of recidivism. So, in addition to the questions about democracy, it turns out that broadening the electorate also can have some public safety benefits as well.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The racial composition, I'm not sure. I'm guessing it's mostly African American, except in Iowa, where I know there are quite a few Latinos, but I don't think too many black residents.

MARC MAUER: What we see in every state is that are generally extreme racial disparities in the impact of disenfranchisement which follows on disparities in the justice system generally. So even in a state like Iowa, which has a relatively small African American population, nonetheless the rate of disenfranchisement for African Americans is far greater than for whites in that state. The other three states – Virginia, Florida and Kentucky – that have broad lifetime disenfranchisement, the rates are just remarkable. In those states, one in five adult African Americans is currently disenfranchised as a result of these policies. So this is an issue for individuals and their participation, but at this rate and this point, it's fundamentally a question for the African American community and their power as a community is really being affected by these policies.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I assume that's one out of 5 African American males?

MARC MAUER: No, that's one of every five African Americans, male and female combined. We only have the data for male and female combined; if we were just look at males, we know the rates would be considerably higher than that, probably approaching 30 percent in those particular states.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was that bad. This project being spearheaded by Connecticut's highest elections official. Are you aware of other such officials in other states doing this?

MARC MAUER: Most of the activity encouraging people to register has been led by advocacy organizations, civil rights groups and the like. So there are very few cases where we see high-ranking state officials taking this on seriously. There has been some progress in Virginia in recent years. First, Gov. McDonnell, a Republican, and now Gov. McAuliffe, a Democrat, have opened up the restoration process in that state. It used to be lifetime ban with a very lengthy waiting period. Now, for those convicted of a nonviolent offense, they can apply for rights restoration shortly after they complete their sentence. It's still a problem in Virginia, as elsewhere, in that relatively few people know about the process or get much support in filling out the required paperwork and the like, so it's very important if we can have situations, such as the Secretary of the State in Connecticut leading that effort and that is likely to make the process go much more smoothly, encouraging people to become registered.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Even if they've never been convicted of a crime, low-income people of color – which is the same demographic we're talking about who are convicted of felonies – are much less likely to vote than whiter and higher income individuals. If that's true, I guess this effort could help move the needle a little bit among lower income and people of color populations?

MARC MAUER: Yeah, if there are campaigns to get out and register people to vote who have the right to vote because they've completed their felony sentences, this could potentially have a significant impact on the representation that we see coming out of these communities so that in terms of having their political voice, access to resources and the like, the communities as a whole have been harmed by disenfranchisement policies even though most people in those communities themselves do not have a felony conviction; it still has affected their political life, nonetheless.

For more information on the Sentencing Project, visit sentencingproject.org.

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