Holder: Restore Felon Voting Rights

Attorney General Eric Holder gave a talk at a criminal justice symposium at Georgetown Law School and urged states to change their laws that restrict felons from voting after they serve their sentence. The federal government has no authority to order this, it’s up to the states. From his talk:

Unfortunately, the re-enfranchisement policy that contributed to this stunning result has been inexplicably and unwisely rolled back since that study was completed. And, in other states, officials have raised hurdles to be faced by those with past convictions seeking to regain their access to the ballot box. And that’s why I believe that, today – starting here and now – it is time for criminal justice leaders to come together to address this issue. It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.

These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive. By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes. They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies. And however well-intentioned current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be – the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated. At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.

The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures – intended to stigmatize, shame, and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime. Over the course of many decades – court by court, state by state – Americans broadly rejected the colonial-era notion that the commission of a crime should result in lifelong exclusion from society.

After Reconstruction, many Southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations. The resulting system of unequal enforcement – and discriminatory application of the law – led to a situation, in 1890, where ninety percent of the Southern prison population was black. And those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives. They could not vote.

In the years since, thanks to the hard work, and the many sacrifices, of millions throughout our history, we’ve outlawed legal discrimination, ended “separate but equal,” and confronted the evils of slavery and segregation. Particularly during the last half-century, we’ve brought about historic advances in the cause of civil rights. And we’ve secured critical protections like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yet – despite this remarkable, once-unimaginable progress – the vestiges, and the direct effects, of outdated practices remain all too real. In many states, felony disenfranchisement laws are still on the books. And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore – it is also too unjust to tolerate.

Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – 5.8 million of our fellow citizens – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions. That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states. And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.

Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens – or nearly one in 13 African-American adults – are banned from voting because of these laws. In three states – Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – that ratio climbs to one in five. These individuals and many others – of all races, backgrounds, and walks of life – are routinely denied the chance to participate in the most fundamental and important act of self-governance. They are prevented from exercising an essential right. And they are locked out from achieving complete rehabilitation and reentry – even after they’ve served the time, and paid the fines, that they owe.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page