Fairness and felons: A push to enfranchise prisoners

A controversial movement to expand rights to prisoners and ex-cons could enlarge - and shift - the electorate.

Depending on where one sits, Joseph "Jazz" Hayden is the Spiderman of a new civil rights movement or a danger to the underpinnings of the judicial system.

He's an ex-con. He served 10 years on a manslaughter rap that he insists was self-defense. While in prison he came to a realization: Convicts that are "stripped of their freedom and at the mercy of their keepers" are probably the least powerful people in this country. So he put together a jailhouse think tank to find a way to change the balance. Its conclusion: Get prisoners to vote. The problem is, only two states - Maine and Vermont - now allow it.

So Mr. Hayden's turned his freedom into a crusade. He's at the forefront of a movement to restore voting rights to felons and ex-felons. And it's had some success. Since 1996, eight states have made it easier for ex-cons and probationers to vote.

To conservatives, it's an ill-advised move that will help lawbreakers become lawmakers by giving them a say in elections. To supporters, it would restore justice to a system that disenfranchises a largely minority segment of the population

The issue has important consequences: Had Florida's former felons had the vote, for example, it's long been speculated that Al Gore would now be president - with big policy ramifications in a post-9/11 world.

The debate also represents a culture clash. "It pits two social trends against each other - the tough-on-crime movement against the ... expansion of civil rights," says Christopher Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.

The notion of excluding lawbreakers from civil society's rites has, in Mr. Uggen's words, "truly ancient origins." It's tied to banishment for offending the king. When the US was founded, many state constitu-tions withheld voting rights for certain crimes, such as treason. But it wasn't until the 1850s, 1860s, and Reconstruction that the modern notion of felony disenfranchisement took hold, particularly in the South. It was an effort to restrict the voting rights of freed slaves, but also entwined with the movement to root out corruption.

The result: Forty-eight states now forbid felons in prison from voting. For ex-cons, though, it's a different picture. Since the liberalization movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and another wave starting in 1996, all but 13 states let them pull the lever.

A recent study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal-justice advocacy organization, found that as a result of the changes since 1996, 471,000 ex-cons have had voting rights restored. But the study also estimates that 3.9 million Americans - 1 in 50 adults - can't vote. And because of the racial imbalance in the criminal justice system, a large percentage of them are minority. Indeed, 1.4 million black men are disenfranchised. That's 13 percent of the African-American male population, a figure seven times the national average.

"The irony is that 50 years after Brown v. the Board of Education ... we actually see increasing numbers of people of color losing their voting rights," says Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.

So advocates of restoring prisoners' rights, like Jazz Hayden, have taken up the mantle of civil rights. Hayden is suing the state of New York, charging it dilutes minority voting rights by disenfranchising felons. "Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy, it's not a privilege," says Hayden, "In prison you loose your liberty, but you don't lose your citizenship."

But opponents, such as Congressmen Thomas Feeney (R) of Florida, contend that choosing lawmakers is a privilege, one that society has a right to bestow selectively. He also notes that even the 13 states that ban ex-cons from voting do have processes to apply for restoration of those rights.

Others argue that the people who will suffer if voting rights are given to felons are the law-abiding minorities in urban areas. "It's their voting rights that will be diluted," says Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

The American public has a fairly clear stance. In a poll commissioned by Uggen last year, 80 percent favored giving all ex-cons the right to vote. But only 31 percent favored extending voting rights to those currently serving their time. That's a model "more in line with international practices than those here in the US," says Uggen.

States' changes to felony disenfranchisement since 1996

Voting rights expanded

Connecticut: Restoration of voting rights to felons on probation

Delaware: Permanent disenfranchisement replaced with 5-year waiting period for most offenses

Maryland: Repeal of lifetime ban for nonviolent repeat offenders

Nevada: Automatic restoration for first-time nonviolent felons; elimination of 5-year waiting period before eligibility for restoration of rights

New Mexico: Repeal of lifetime ban

Texas: Elimination of 2-year waiting period for restoration of rights

Virginia: Streamlining of restoration process

Wyoming: Restoration of rights for first-time nonviolent felons

Voting rights restricted

Kansas: Expansion of disenfranchisement to felons on probation

Massachusetts: Disenfranchisement of felons in prison

Utah: Disenfranchisement of felons in prison

Source: The Sentencing Project

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