||Earl Ofari Hutchinson
As incredible as it seems twelve states still brand many blacks as second class citizens. These states permanently bar one in four adult black men from voting. These men can't vote because they are convicted felons. The U.S. is the only Western nation that bans a person from voting for life based on a criminal offense. It's no accident that five of the 12 states that perpetuate this morally and legally indefensible practice are Southern states. The South has had a long and deplorable history of devising an arsenal of racially abusive tactics including poll taxes, literacy laws, and political gerrymandering to drive blacks from the voting booths.
This thinly disguised relic of the South's Jim Crow past has done much to drastically dilute black political strength. In 1996 about 4 1/2 million black men voted in the presidential election. If the 1 million black men in prison, on parole, or probation that were disenfranchised because of their criminal record had been added to the total their vote might have made a crucial difference in deciding some close contests in those states.
Even more frightening, black disenfranchisement will probably get worse. Blacks now make up nearly half of the more than two million prisoners in the nation's jails. The entrenchment of racially biased drug laws, racial profiling, and chronic poverty in many black communities means that more black men will be arrested, prosecuted, convicted and serve longer prison sentences than white men. This virtually guarantees that the number of blacks behind bars will swell.
The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. based criminal justice advocacy group, estimates that at the present rate of black incarceration upwards of 40 percent of black men could be permanently barred from the polls in the vote restricted states in the next few years. And since most state officials are scared stiff of being publicly labeled as soft on crime, state legislatures have either ignored the issue or stonewalled legislation that would end the archaic practice.
Congress can take a big first step toward rectifying this blatant injustice by passing the pending Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act. It would not effect voting in state elections but it would restore voting rights to ex-felons in federal elections.
It will probably take a fierce fight to get this bill passed. Many conservatives passionately defend the policy of ex-felon disenfranchisement. They claim that in barring criminals from voting society sends the strong message that if you break the law you should pay, and continue to pay dearly. The argument might make sense if all or most of the disenfranchised ex-felons were convicted murderers, rapists, or robbers. And they were denied the vote because of a court imposed sentence. This is not the case.
None of the states that bar felons from voting in near perpetuity require that judges strip them of their voting rights as part of their sentence based on the seriousness of the crime or the severity of the punishment. The majority of ex-felons were jailed for non-violent crimes such as drug possession, passing bad checks, or auto theft. In most instances they fully served their sentence and in theory paid their debt to society.
Most of the convicted felons were young men when they committed their crime. The odds are that most of them won't become career criminals, but will hold steady jobs, raise families and become responsible members of the community. Yet imprinting these ex-felons with the legal and social stigma of "hereditary criminals" and banning them from voting until death makes politicians and many Americans seem like the worst kind of hypocrites when they say they believe in giving prisoners a second chance in life.
The Sentencing Project has rightly denounced the exclusion of ex-felons from voting as a racially bigoted, blight on society. So far they've been a lone voice for change. Civil liberties groups and civil rights organizations have taken a hands off stance on the issue and filed few court challenges or mounted any sustained lobbying campaign in Congress or state legislatures to get the discriminatory voting laws changed.
That the right to vote for thousands of black American citizens is still an issue decades after the end of slavery and legal segregation is worse than a travesty of justice. It's a blot on the democratic process. It's one that Congress and state legislatures should remove immediately.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of the The Disappearance of Black Leadership (Middle Passage Press, Los Angeles, May 2000) Order Information: 323-298-0266. He is also director of the National Alliance for Positive Action. email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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