Posted: April 11, 2008
States Grapple with Felon Voting Rights
A recent Pew Center report estimated that one of every 100 Americans is behind bars. While they are in prison, most lose the right to vote and once they are released, some never regain the right. That has many in the voting rights field asking, "how do we deal with the increasing number of Americans who go away to prison and don't come back with the same rights and opportunities?" Jori Lewis reports.
JORI LEWIS: Curran White just got out of prison last fall at age 36. It was his third sentence on a felony drug charge and, he hopes, his last.
CURRAN WHITE: It has been an ongoing occurrence and I'm just trying to break that cycle now. I'm up in age, you know, but it's not too late. I don't believe it's too late for me.
White lives with his family just outside of Newark, N.J, and regularly meets with his parole officer. He is going to school and looking for a job. He says he hopes to become a regular tax-paying citizen. And unlike nearly half of Americans, he says he would vote -- if he could. But that's not an option for him right now. Not in New Jersey.
CURRAN WHITE: I actually spoke to my parole officer and it was like I wouldn't be able to vote actually until I'm off parole. It's sad because, actually I would like to vote. If you're not involved and you're constantly complaining, there's really nothing you should be complaining about if you're not trying to make an effort to contribute.
In every state in the U.S. except for Maine and Vermont, people convicted of a felony lose the right to vote while in prison. But when felons get out of prison, regaining their full rights as a citizen depends -- at least in part -- on where they find themselves. Some states prevent ex-felons from voting for the rest of their lives, while other states allow them to vote when they leave prison. In New Jersey and some 19 other states, ex-felons cannot vote if they are still on parole or on probation. The terms of their parole or probation could last from a few months to an entire lifetime.
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that more than 5 million people in the U.S. have lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction. Of that number, about 4 million are no longer imprisoned. Most of them are black or Latino.
Juan Cartagena is a civil rights lawyer and general counsel for a community service organization in New York City. He has studied the impact of felon disenfranchisement among Latino voting blocs in key states. In New York, he says, about 43,000 Latino citizens are denied the right to vote.
JUAN CARTAGENA: So, when I tell you that we've lost 43,000 votes, it may not mean a lot from the perspective of the entire state but it sure as hell means a lot to particular communities. Felon disfranchisement affects not only the individual whose vote has been taken away, it's not just what voting rights lawyers call a vote-denial claim. It's also a vote-dilution claim. That relative political power is taken away from the neighbors of persons who come back home, from their family members. Their relative collective voting strength is wiped of the map almost.
In New Jersey, where Curran White lives, about 80,000 ex-felons cannot vote, according to the New Jersey ACLU.
Life is hard for ex-felons in New Jersey, as it is in the rest of the United States. They are barred from certain types of jobs. Many are ineligible for public housing and, in some cases, will have had their drivers license suspended. That could make it difficult for them to get around. They often need a lot of help -- help that isn't always there. A report by the public policy organization the Legal Action Center, ranks New Jersey toward the bottom when it comes to supportive services for the formerly incarcerated. Omar Shabazz coordinates a prisoner reentry program in Newark.
OMAR SHABAZZ: Right now they are sending people out here who don't have a job, don't have food, don't have clothing, don't have family. They give them a fishnet bag with some books and papers they gathered in prison and turn them loose on society. And that's a crime. Here we help people make that transition. If you need food we can refer you to soup kitchens. People that have housing or clothing. We have established collaborations with people who can put a few dollars in someone's pocket. You may have to work hard for not a lot of money but a frank beat a blank.
Shabazz is himself an ex-felon ... on lifetime parole, meaning he will never be able to vote under New Jersey law. But for many of the people he works with, Shabazz says, there are more pressing concerns than the right to vote.
Take Larry Banks. He served 10 years in prison and has been out for about a year. Since he's not on probation or parole, he would have been eligible to vote in New Jersey's primary. But until a few days ago, Banks was homeless.
LARRY BANKS: I used to vote before I went away. You know that's what shows that you're a citizen when you can make decisions like that, that affect you. I know the ins and outs. I'm a very smart guy, I know the ins and outs of when you let people know what's needed, that's what shows how much money comes to the area you live. I know all that stuff, but I've just trying to stay alive up till now.
Shabazz says if he or if all of the people he knows in prison or on long-term parole could vote, politicians might pay attention to their concerns.
OMAR SHABAZZ: People participate in the voting process when they feel like they are one of the stakeholders. If you had this voting bloc and say we're going to support this group here because they're going to have free meals for all the people that come home from prison. Or they gonna address the mandatory minimums in sentencing or address discrimination in hiring practices for the ex-offender population. So, there's a lot of things if you had the vote politically that you would ask the legislators -- whether it be the mayor, the councilman, the senator -- to come up with some programs for this population that's coming home after serving time and paying their debt to society.
There have been efforts to address the issues former prisoners face. The governor of New Jersey and the mayor of Newark have begun discussing reentry services. Congress just passed a federal bill to fund projects for people leaving prisons ? including more job training, drug treatment and mentoring programs.
It's all baby steps, says Rachel Bloom, the advocacy coordinator of the ACLU's national Right to Vote campaign. In some of the most restrictive states, she says, the group has lobbied for years to change the voting rules.
RACHEL BLOOM: So, every year you introduce that legislation. Every year, you organize a coalition. And you keep doing it and doing it and doing it. And you know, hopefully one day something is going to happen. A decade ago there were 10 states that disfranchised all people with felony convictions and now there are only two. We'd like to see it be none.
Those two states are Kentucky and Virginia. But across the U.S., many states have changed their laws over the last 10 years. In 2006, voters approved an amendment to Rhode Island's constitution to allow people on parole and probation to vote. The campaign started after a local reentry program compiled data that showed about 20 percent of black men and 10 percent of Latino men were unable to vote because of a conviction. In some neighborhoods of the capital Providence, nearly 40 percent of black men couldn't vote.
Dan Schleifer ran the right-to-vote campaign for the reentry program, the Rhode Island Family Life center.
DAN SCHLEIFER: People, I think, were aware of it on some level, but actually seeing the numbers helped people relate their experiences to a larger social trend. I mean people described it in that way often. 'Well, wow, I thought it was just me and a lot of people I know. But I didn't realize it was kind of everybody in my community.'
Schleifer says that realization jumpstarted many ex-offenders to advocate for change. He says 15,000 people got their right to vote back when the referendum passed. And now the center has a more politically active base.
Koren Carbuccia would testify to that. She served time in Rhode Island on drug charges a few years back. She joined the right-to-vote campaign when she realized that her lengthy probation sentence meant she couldn't vote in her son's local school board elections until 2017. She was the public face of the Rhode Island campaign. Photos of her with her son were plastered on fliers, billboards and buses all over the state.
KOREN CARBUCCIA: It gave me more...want to stand up for myself. Because I would just immediately at any question, at any opportunity anybody had to find out about my past, I shunned and ran from it. Now it's like, 'yeah, I did that and I'm sorry for it and I'm still paying for it in a lot of other ways. But I do get up and I work everyday and you take just as much taxes out of my check, so can I have a chance?'
Schleifer at the Family Life Center says they will try to track whether people with felony convictions take advantage of their newfound rights this election season.
KOREN CARBUCCIA: Help me out here, it's my first time.
On primary day in Rhode Island, Carbuccia, for one, couldn't wait to vote.
KOREN CARBUCCIA: Carbuccia. c-a-r...right here.
It only took her a few minutes to fill out the big blue ballot.
JORI LEWIS: How was it?
KOREN CARBUCCIA: I could actually say, that I feel as good as everyone else.
Some studies have suggested that giving ex-felons the right to vote -- giving people a stake in their communities. That civic engagement, ultimately, might keep them at home, out of prison and productive as citizens.
For the Online NewsHour, this is Jori Lewis.
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