Kentucky Governor Restores Voting Rights to Thousands of Felons

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Kentucky Governor Restores Voting Rights to Thousands of Felons.

Weeks before he leaves office, the governor of Kentucky on Tuesday issued an executive order that will immediately grant the right to vote to about 140,000 nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences. Kentucky is the latest state to restore voting rights to ex-felons — part of a nationwide move against felon disenfranchisement laws that affect nearly 6 million Americans.

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. Beshear, a Democrat, was cheered by advocates for criminal justice reform and civil rights, who said it would place Kentucky’s policy more in line with others across the nation and was consistent with a trend toward easing voting restrictions on former inmates. Florida and Iowa still carry the lifetime ban. “Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens,” Mr. The group called the announcement “an incredible breakthrough in the movement to end criminal disenfranchisement policies nationwide.” The governor is acting just two weeks before he’ll leave office.

But the initial response from the governor-elect, Matt Bevin, a conservative Republican, was positive. “Governor-elect Bevin has said many times that the restoration of voting rights for certain offenders is the right thing to do,” said Jessica Ditto, a spokeswoman for Mr. 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. Kentucky’s constitution bars those convicted of a felony from voting, affecting an estimated 180,000 people, who are disproportionately poor and non-white.

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. Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, had pushed state lawmakers in recent years to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would restore felon voting rights.

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. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have eased restrictions on voting by former prisoners, said Myrna Pérez, the director of the voting rights project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. 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. 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. Such a proposal was adopted by a large margin this year in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, but it was blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Studies have shown that individuals who vote are more likely to give to charity, volunteer, attend school board meetings, serve on juries and are more actively involved in their communities.” 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. 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. 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. 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.

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