ATTORNEY GENERAL Eric Holder has spent the past several months restoring compassion and sanity to criminal justice. He has announced that the Justice Department would not go after low-level, nonviolent crack cocaine drug offenders with mandatory minimum penalties and that it would not sue to block new state laws legalizing marijuana. He has been outspoken against “stand your ground” laws, saying they “try to fix something that was never broken.”
Now Holder is raising his voice again, asking the states to fix one of the most broken parts of criminal justice. In a speech Tuesday at Georgetown University, he became the first attorney general to call for the restoration of voting rights to men and women who have served their time for felony convictions.
Only 13 states, including Massachusetts, restore voting rights after prison release. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, let prisoners vote. The rest have various levels of restrictions after release, and 11 deny the right to vote even after finishing probation or parole.
Holder said such laws “sever a formerly incarcerated person’s most direct link to civic participation. They cause further alienation and disillusionment . . . it is not consistent with the cherished ideals that once led Supreme Court Justice William Brennan to call disenfranchisement ‘the very antithesis of rehabilitation.’ ”
Disenfranchisement is the antithesis of democracy itself. Consider the 2000 presidential election. It was decided by 537 votes in Florida, the state that has the nation’s highest level of felony disenfranchisement. More than 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population, including an incredible 23 percent of African Americans, cannot vote because of prior convictions. Who knows what the American political landscape would have looked like had Al Gore won instead of George W. Bush?
Holder bluntly asserted that despite America’s obvious racial progress, felony disenfranchisement keeps open a sore wound in American history. It is no accident that most of the states where at least 10 percent of voting-age African Americans are disqualified by prior convictions are in the old slave South, where whiffs of post-Reconstruction voter suppression efforts often still flare up today at redistricting time. (Massachusetts, conversely, has less than 1 percent black disenfranchisement, according to researchers).
“The vestiges, and the direct effects, of outdated practices remain all too real,” Holder said.
Many were thrilled with Holder’s speech. Sociologist Jeff Manza of New York University said the desire for citizenship by former felons has always been underestimated. Extensive research shows that formerly incarcerated men and women who can vote have significantly less recidivism.
A woman who was serving her conviction for falsifying a drug prescription told him it did not make sense for a released felon to be a “good taxpayer and a homeowner,” but not be able to vote. She said that reinforced the message from society that “You’re bad. Remember what you did way back when?”
In a telephone interview Thursday, Manza said when ex-felons do not have the vote, “you still have the feeling that society has abandoned you.”
Marc Mauer, the head of the Sentencing Project, which has long advocated for re-enfranchisement, said withholding the vote is particularly unreasonable because so many felonies were for nonviolent offenses.
“There are states where an 18-year-old gets picked up for a modest amount of drug possession, is brought to court, and the judge orders drug treatment,” Mauer said. “The young man never actually goes to jail, he may never see a cop again, but he’s lost the right to vote. You could be caught shoplifting a cheap cellphone, but it gets prosecuted as a larceny. For glorified shoplifting, you can lose the right to vote forever.”
Even President Bush, who will go down as America’s biggest beneficiary of felony disenfranchisement, said in his 2004 State of the Union address, “America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” That better life should involve reopening the drapes of the voting booth. In saying the formerly incarcerated should get back the vote, Holder issued a call for compassion — and democracy — that finally should be heard.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.