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Still Second Class Citizens

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

There are seven states that give real meaning to the term second class citizenship for many African-Americans. These states permanently bar one in four eligible black men from voting in an election. The men aren't victims of racist poll taxes, literacy laws, or political gerrymandering. They aren't being driven from the voting booths by physical harassment, threats or intimidation by bigoted sheriffs or voter registrars. If they were it would make some sense given the long, and vicious history of Jim Crow voting laws in the United States.

They can't vote because they have been convicted of a felony. With more young black men and women winding up behind bars, and for longer terms mostly for drug possession than whites, the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, estimates that in the next few years 40 percent of black men may permanently be barred from the polls in the states with this restriction.
It doesn't take an astute political analyst to figure out that this modern-day legal disfranchisement will drastically dilute black political strength. When you measure the 1.4 million black men in prison, parole, probation who are prohibited from voting, against the 4.6 million black men who voted in the 1996 election the magnitude of the crisis is staggering.

It's easy to call this a good policy that makes it even rougher on lawbreakers. But it isn't. The U.S. is the only country in the world with blatantly discriminatory laws that ban a person from voting for life based on a criminal offense. Many of the men that are stripped of their right to vote are not convicted murderers, rapists, or robbers. Most are not denied the vote because of a court imposed sentence, since no states require that a judge bar an offender from voting as part of a criminal sentence, because of the seriousness of the crime, or severity of the sentence.

Many offenders don't even serve a day in prison. They may have been convicted of auto theft, or for first time drug possession, and given probation, or a fine. Since most are young men when they committed their crime the chances are good that many won't become career criminals, but will hold steady jobs, raise families and become responsible members of the community. Yet as long as society slaps on them the legal and social stigma of being a one-time criminal they are deprived of the basic constitutional right to vote and relegated to second class citizenship in perpetuity. This cruelly mocks the notion of rehabilitation and proves that much of the public and many politicians don't believe the lip service they pay to giving prisoners a second chance.

For the past two years the Sentencing Project has denounced the exclusion of ex-felons from voting as racially-biased, and a blight on society. It's been a cry in the dark. There have been few court challenges from civil liberties, or African-American organizations. And since few public officials are willing to be cursed as "soft on crime," state legislatures have ignored the issue.
One of the few public officials willing to take the risk is Michigan Democrat John Conyers. Not surprisingly the bill he introduced to lift the prohibition was quickly shot down in Congress last year.

Right now the only way ex-felons can get their voting rights restored is to seek a pardon from the governor. However, this is a dead end for most. Governors read the fierce mood on crime, and know that much of the public considers ex-felons pariahs that deserve any treatment they get. So few ex-felons even bother to request a pardon.

That the right to vote for many American citizens should still be an issue today is worse than a travesty of justice, it's a blot on the democratic process. It's one that should be removed immediately.

Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "
The Crisis in Black and Black"
email: Middle Passage Press
available at all bookstores!
Copyright 1998 by Afrocentric News.
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