Kentucky rolls back voting restoration for felons: Does trend still hold?

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on Tuesday overturned an executive order from his predecessor that had allowed automatic restoration of voting rights for prisoners released after serving time for non-violent crimes.

Timothy D. Easley/AP/File
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) speaks on the steps of the Kentucky Capitol, Dec. 8. Governor Bevin overturned an executive order from his predecessor that had allowed automatic restoration of voting rights for prisoners released after serving time for non-violent crimes Tuesday.

The debate around criminals is shifting, and many politicians are now worrying less about sending them into prison than getting them back into society after their sentences are over.

The new governor of Kentucky, a Republican, just overturned an executive order by his Democratic predecessor to restore voting rights for released prisoners who served time for non-violent crimes without an individualized appeal process. This means all convicted felons will appeal to the governor's office to have voting rights restored, although anyone whose voting rights had been restored can keep them.

In signing the executive order, then-Gov. Steve Beshear reasoned that restoring voting rights to a felon whose time in prison is over is not only about restoring rights, but also about proactively offering a path back into society.

"We need to be smarter in our criminal justice system," Mr. Bashear said as he announced the executive order, according to Reuters. "Research shows that ex-felons who vote are less likely to commit new crime and return to prison. That’s because if you vote, you tend to be more engaged in society."

The quick flip-flop in just a couple of months underscores the tense debate surrounding criminal justice reform. Once a person has served his or her time and paid back the debt to society, when and how can they begin transitioning back into it?

"Most people would say that No. 1 is protecting the public, No. 2 is protecting employees, and the No. 3 goal is to protect offenders. But if you reduce recidivism you are accomplishing all those goals," Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said in a 2011 Pew Report about how rehabilitation efforts contributed to reduced recidivism.

Only four other states prevent prisoners released after prison time for non-violent crimes from voting, so the move by new Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin goes against a trend that both parties have shown an interest in. Sen. Rand Paul (R), also from Kentucky, backed the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act of 2015, which would restore voting rights for non-violent offenders. 

For his part, Mr. Bevin’s objections to the former governor's move may have been a matter of means rather than of ends, reports John Cheves for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights, it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people," Bevin said in a prepared statement, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Some anticipated that politics might affect the issue when Beshear issued the executive order in November, as The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time:

It is unclear if Kentucky will retain Beshear's executive order after Mr. Bevin takes office. Bevin has expressed support for former convicts' voting rights, but may be swayed by criticism from fellow Republicans that the change came via executive order, rather than the state legislature, where similar bills have died several times. For his part, Beshear claims that the state constitution gives him the right to act.

Democratic leaders have said they will keep trying to move the issue through the legislature to follow the national trend.

"I am extremely disappointed with the executive order on felon voting rights, which to me goes against promises Governor Bevin made during his campaign," Kentucky Rep. Darryl Owens (D) told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "I will continue championing the amendment that will give voters a chance to put Kentucky in line with the vast majority of states on this issue."

The new governor disagreed with his predecessor's views on executive orders, but his statement when he overturned the order seemed to express friendliness toward the issue of restoring voting rights to felons overall. Time will tell whether he is willing to provide political leadership to that effect.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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