Kentucky restores voting rights for 170,000 ex-cons, joining national trend

Over 20 states have expanded the franchise of former prisoners, based not just on civil rights concerns, but on the potential of the vote to decrease recidivism and support inmates' transition to the outside world.

Timothy D. Easley/ AP
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear appears at a press conference on Tuesday, November 17 in Frankfort, KY. The two-term governor's last day in office will be December 7, 2015.

"The right to vote and the right to hold office are fundamental foundations of our democracy," Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said on Tuesday as he signed an executive order restoring voting rights to 170,000 nonviolent felons.

"They have paid for their crimes," said the state's outgoing Democratic governor, a two-term office holder who will be replaced by Republican Matt Bevin in December. 

It's an increasingly popular move. The Sentencing Project estimates that 5.85 million Americans have been disenfranchised because of felony convictions – enough to have swung the 2000 presidential elections, as two sociology professors argued in 2002. But Mr. Beshear's decision today makes Florida, Ground Zero of the contentious Bush v. Gore recount, one of only four states where former felons are automatically ineligible to vote.

Previously, released prisoners had to apply to the governor himself for a pardon and voting rights. Under a previous governor, the pardoning process involved writing an essay and seeking character references.

Although current Kentucky prisoners cannot vote, a right granted only in Maine and Vermont, their rights will be restored as soon as their sentences and restitution are completed. Those imprisoned for violent crimes, however, will not be automatically allowed voting rights; they must still apply for pardons from the state's governor, as must prisoners convicted for sex-related crimes, bribery, and treason.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, 20 states have rolled back limits on felon voting rights over the past two decades. While the criminal justice system, and therefore felon defranchisement, affect minorities disproportionately, the disparity was particularly acute in Kentucky, where 1 in 5 black citizens were disenfranchised, compared to 1 in 13 nationwide. 

As Reuters reported, Beshear argued that "We need to be smarter in our criminal justice system," as he announced the executive order. "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 governor said.

The move reflects a gradual, national shift toward justice policies that focus on rehabilitation instead of only punishment, which have been given a strong push by the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder. And some justice reforms have bipartisan support: for instance, Kentucky's own Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, introduced the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act of 2015, which would restore the vote to nonviolent convicts. 

Mr. Holder sees "the criminal justice system [as] the civil rights issue of the 21st century," the Sentencing Project's Executive Director Marc Mauer told the New York Times in 2014. "He hasn’t used those words, but that’s what I hear when I listen to him."

Many states are easing voting limits for former felons, claiming that the move reduces recidivism, a boost for public safety as well as public coffers.

“We had programs to keep inmates busy but not much to prepare folks for life after prison. With the budget crunch, the sheer numbers of people incarcerated and the length of time we were keeping them came to light and legislators became aware of the huge expense. That gave us an opportunity to do things differently,” Kentucky's Department of Corrections Commissioner LaDonna H. Thompson said in a 2011 Pew Report about how rehabilitation efforts contributed to reduced recidivism

In 2010, Kentucky reported a 10-year low in re-conviction: 40.3 percent of former prisoners were back in jail three years later. 

Without the vote, "the government endorses a system that expects these citizens to contribute to the community, but denies them participation in our democracy," Kentucky ACLU Executive Director Michael Aldridge told Insider Louisville before the governor's announcement. 

Dozens of countries around the world, from Canada, to Denmark, to Israel, allow prisoners to vote, in addition to released convicts.  

Anthropology professor Susan Greenbaum, of the University of South Florida, has argued that Southern states clamped down on former prisoners' voting rights after the Civil War. Paired with high arrest rates for recently-freed slaves, and new laws that farmed convicts out for work, the former Confederacy managed to maintain a system in which African-Americans were disenfranchised

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.

"Disenfranchisement makes no sense," he said, according to the Courier-Journal:

It makes no sense because it dilutes the energy of democracy, which functions only if all classes and categories of people have a voice, not just a privileged, powerful few. It makes no sense because it defeats a primary goal of our corrections system, which is to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes.

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