Published by emPower Magazine
By: Ashley Jones
When the word “felon” is heard, people tend to cringe as it sparks a negative reaction towards most. But we often seem to forget that felons are people too, better yet citizens. They have emotions, thoughts, and most importantly rights. As a result of their mistakes, their rights are taken away from them even after they have paid their debt to society. While most people take advantage of the right to vote, it is fought for everyday by former felons and organizations that choose to sustain it.
Such organizations include The Sentencing Project, a national research advocacy group that works to reform sentencing policies. Based in Washington D.C., the group has been dedicated to working with lawmakers to bring forth disparities and inequalities that are constantly occurring in the justice system, including felony disfranchisement.
The Sentencing Project’s Nicole Porter, who is the Director of Advocacy, works directly with these lawmakers who perform this research at the state level. For Porter, incarceration due to injustice and racial disparities is all too familiar. From the personal experiences of family members falling to such circumstances, she has chosen to devote her time and energy to something that hit close to home.
“Felony disfranchisement is an obstacle to participate in democratic life,” Porter said.
According to Porter the public is constantly misinformed about voting rights for former felons, and people should be aware of their eligibility. With her knowledge from detailed research, Porter has shared with emPower magazine five things to know about voting rights for former felons.
1) 2.5 percent of U.S. adults of the voting age population are disenfranchised due to current or previous felony convictions.
This percentage is broken down to 1 out of every 40 adults or nearly 6 million Americans. Although the prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year, according to federal statistics released this summer, the U.S.still has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world with 743 adults incarcerated per 100,000 population.
2) In addition 5.85 million people are denied the right to vote as of 2010.
According to a 2012 report by the Sentencing Project, this number has gradually increased over the years due to mass incarceration that started in the 80s and stricter state voting rights laws. As of 1976, 1.2 million were denied the right to vote, and 3.3 billion in 1996. In 2010, the number ballooned to 5.9 million.
3) In Maine and Vermont, people who are incarcerated have the right to vote.
Despite this law, there are still 11 states that disenfranchise felons even after they have completed their sentences. These states include: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming.
4) Thanks to education that has led to reform, the law has been changed in some states.
For example, Delaware passed a new law that allowed convicted felons of certain non-violent crimes to vote after sentence completion. In addition, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) plans to restore voting rights to the state’s nonviolent felons by the end of his term.
5) 2.2 million African Americans are disenfranchised which adds up to 7.7 percent of Black adults.
This percentage is high compared to a 1.8 percent of disenfranchised non-African Americans. According to a 2012 report by the Sentencing Project, about 8 percent (or 1 in 13) of African-Americans are unable to vote. In, three states—Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia—African-American felons fare much worse. At least 1 in 5 are not eligible to cast a ballot in those states.”Racial disparities are pervasive towards people who have lost the right to vote,” said Porter.
What You Can Do
From working to close Texas’ Dawson State Jail to eliminating state crack sentencing disparities, the Sentencing Project has a number of initiatives to combat unfair criminal justice practices and sentencing disparities among minorities. Learn how to get involved.