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current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be – the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated.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.
Fortunately – despite unfortunate steps backward in a few jurisdictions, and thanks to the leadership of policymakers from both parties and criminal justice professionals like you – in recent years we have begun to see a trend in the right direction. Since 1997, a total of 23 states – including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State – have enacted meaningful reforms. In Virginia, just last year, former Governor McDonnell adopted a policy that began to automatically restore the voting rights of former prisoners with non-violent felony convictions.
These are positive developments. But many of these changes are incremental in nature. They stop well short of confronting this problem head-on. And although we can be encouraged by the promising indications we’ve seen, a great deal of work remains to be done. Given what is at stake, the time for incrementalism is clearly over.
Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole – including the State of Florida, where approximately 10 percent of the entire population is disenfranchised as a result. In Mississippi, roughly 8 percent of the population cannot vote because of past involvement with the criminal justice system. In Iowa, action by the governor in 2011 caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights – following the completion of a criminal sentence – to an arduous process that requires direct intervention by the governor himself in every individual case. It’s no surprise that, two years after this change – of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor’s tenure – voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12.
Here’s another idea that will help solve this problem: Stop locking up so many people, most of them racial minorities, for drug crimes. We know that white people use, buy and sell drugs at the same rate as blacks and Latinos, yet the latter are arrested and prosecuted far more often for it. This is nothing less than a reestablishment of the Jim Crow era. It’s unjust and it needs to end.