Felony Convictions Sap Black Political Clout

The political power of the African-American community is being diluted by US criminal justice policies that imprison young black men at significantly higher rates than whites, according to a study released today.

As many as 1.4 million black males - roughly 14 percent of all black men - are currently prohibited from voting because of felony convictions.

"While many of these individuals will regain their voting rights after completion of their sentence, the cumulative impact of such large numbers of persons being disenfranchised from the electoral process clearly dilutes the political power of the African-American community," the report says.

The report, released by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that believes prison space should be reserved only for violent criminals, says blacks in America are seven times more likely to go to prison than are whites.

"It is very distressing," says Madeline Wordes of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco. "It shows the far-reaching consequences of disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans."

Dr. Wordes says the report suggests that the African-American community is suffering from "differential" law enforcement. "But we don't know exactly [what is causing the statistical disparities]," she says. "It is very important that we find out."

The report says tougher drug laws have resulted in a 465 percent increase in the number of blacks sent to prison since 1986.

All but four states (Maine, Massachusetts, Utah, and Vermont) prohibit state prison inmates from voting. In 13 states, a felony conviction means loss of voting rights for life.

The Sentencing Project suggests that US policymakers consider job programs and alternative sentencing projects for other convicts.

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