***UPDATE: 2/11/14 11:25 a.m. Scroll down for Holder’s full remarks on repealing felony disenfranchisement laws.

During Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech this morning at Georgetown University Law Center he announced that people who can’t vote due to past felony convictions should have their voting rights restored. Said Holder:

“It is time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision,” Holder was to say in prepared remarks. “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.”

There are 11 states that bar people with felony convictions from voting upon release from jail, even after they’ve completed probation or parole. Three states — Virginia, Florida and Kentucky — have a permanent felony disenfranchisement ban pending a successful appeal to the governor, but only after a lengthy application process and waiting period. Virginia began relaxing its felony disenfranchisement laws under its former governor Bob McDonnell and is expected to extend even more restoration rights to former felons under current governor Terry McAuliffe. 

Holder made these remarks at an event sponsored by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Vera Institute of Justice. It’s billed as a bipartisan event to discuss the ongoing criminal justice reforms that have been springing from the Justice Department and how they can go farther. Also present for the forum are Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Other speakers are participating today from the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation. 

Said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: “There is undeniable bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform that updates inhumane sentencing laws and returns people to society with dignity. America is the world’s greatest democracy, yet felon disenfranchisement laws deny almost six million Americans the right to vote. These laws serve no purpose but to make it harder for returning citizens to reintegrate into their communities — to work, seek an education, and participate in our democracy. Successful reintegration and smarter sentencing are the keys to ensuring that our criminal justice system is more fair, more humane, and more fiscally responsible.”

***Below are Holder’s full remarks at the Georgetown Criminal Justice Forum where the Attorney General calls for felony disenfranchisement laws to be repealed:

“I’ve ordered our law enforcement components to reconsider policies that impose overly burdensome collateral consequences on formerly incarcerated individuals without meaningfully improving public safety. …

“Yet formerly incarcerated people continue to face significant obstacles.  They are frequently deprived of opportunities they need to rebuild their lives. And in far too many places, their rights - including the single most basic right of American citizenship, the right to vote - are either abridged or denied. …

“As the Leadership Conference Education Fund articulated very clearly in your recent report, “there is no rational reason to take away someone’s voting rights for life just because they’ve committed a crime, especially after they’ve completed their sentence and made amends.”  On the contrary: there is evidence to suggest that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system.  As your report further notes, a study recently conducted by a parole commission in Florida found that, while the overall three-year recidivism rate stood at roughly 33 percent, the rate among those who were re-enfranchised after they’d served their time was just a third of that. …

“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 rethink 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 discrimination.  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. …

“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.  …

“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….

“I applaud those who have already shown leadership in raising awareness and helping to address this issue.  Later today, this conference will hear from Senator Rand Paul, who has been a leader on this matter. His vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines.

“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. …

“That’s moving backwards - not forward.  It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values.  These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”

Read this online at http://colorlines.com/archives/2014/02/ag_holder_says_restore_voting_rights_to_former_felons.html


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