Black ex-felons and Gore

For the past month the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, and nearly every civil-rights group have loudly protested that thousands of blacks were "Jim Crow-ed" - turned away for various technical reasons - at the polls in Florida.

They charge that if their ballots had been counted, Al Gore would have sailed to victory in Florida - and into the White House. But even without those rejected black ballots, Mr. Gore still could have bagged thousands of black votes and taken the state, avoiding the nasty legal war with George W. Bush.

The winning votes could have come from disenfranchised black ex-felons. Florida is 1 of 9 states in which ex-felons are permanently barred from voting. The conservative estimate is that 1 out of 4 black men is excluded from the polls in Florida, including those who are currently incarcerated. Factoring out those now in prison, it's 1 in 7.

Blacks make up a little more than 13 percent of Florida's population. And of the nearly 1 million blacks who voted in the election in Florida, 93 percent voted for Gore. In short, the vice president could have picked up thousands of votes from disenfranchised black ex-felons.

In Florida's Hillsborough County, more than 3,000 residents were identified as possible felons. More than half of them were black, even though blacks make up only 11 percent of the county's voters. If half had voted, Gore would have probably picked up many of their votes.

This would have added to his total in his quest to overcome the 930-vote lead that Mr. Bush held on Nov. 18. Gore can't blame the loss of these votes on conniving Republicans. He can blame their loss on his boss.

Two disastrous anti-crime initiatives of President Clinton converted thousands of eligible voters into disenfranchised ex-felons in Florida and other states.

The first was the 1994 federal crime bill. That draconian legislation was the brainchild of Presidents Reagan and Bush. It ladled out $22 billion, mostly in block grants, to the states to hire more police and prosecutors, build new prisons and courts, and establish crime commissions.

It drained funds for drug-rehab and -prevention programs, social services, youth employment, recreation, and job training. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush fought hard to get the bill through Congress in 1988, 1990, and 1992.

A Democratic-controlled Congress dumped the bill on the legislative scrap-heap each time. But Mr. Clinton seized on it as an election tool in 1992, and made its passage his top priority. The law did not sweep the streets of hard-core rapists, murderers, and bank robbers. It criminalized thousands of people, mostly blacks and Latinos, for petty crimes and drug possession, ignited the biggest prison-police boom in US history, encouraged about half the states to adopt "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws, led to a deadly rash of racial-profiling cases, and widened the obscene racial disparities in prison sentencing.

At the start of Clinton's presidency in 1993, 1.4 million inmates were stacked up in America's prisons. Nearly 2 million are there today; half are black.

Clinton also did nothing to change the racially disfigured federal drug-sentencing laws. The laws, a relic of the Reagan-Bush years, punish crack-cocaine use more harshly than other drug use. This has resulted in thousands more blacks and Latinos being warehoused in US prisons.

In a special report to Congress in 1995, the US Sentencing Commission admitted that the drug sentences are racially biased and recommended that Congress drastically modify the disparity. Clinton ignored the report.

In another report to Congress in 1997, the commission again recommended that the law be modified. This time Clinton signed legislation formally rejecting the proposed changes in the sentencing guidelines. The Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups, however, mounted a fierce attack on Clinton to stop the racial poleaxing of minority drug users.

In 1998, he reversed gear and agreed to the guideline changes. But when Congress refused to budge and scrapped the Sentencing Commision's recommendation, Clinton did not utter a protest.

In September, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University filed a lawsuit in Florida against the ban on ex-felons' voting. It cited the colossal damage the ban did to black voting strength in the state. Many Florida Democrats can and should put their full political muscle behind the fight.

If they had done so sooner, and Florida had modified or scrapped the ban, Gore might now be preparing a triumphal transition into the White House instead of battling for his life in the courts.

For that he can thank Clinton.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of 'The Disappearance of Black Leadership' (Middle Passage Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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