Kentucky restores voting rights for 170000 ex-cons, joining national trend

25 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Capitol Education Center to be named after first lady.

“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. 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. The facility promotes Kentucky government, geography and energy conservation, and Beshear said it represents his wife’s “commitment to education and the people of Kentucky.” The energy efficient center is insulated with recycled denim and includes a viewing platform on the roof with solar panels, a wind turbine and a rooftop garden. 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.

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.

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. Beshear for taking an important step toward breaking down barriers to ballot boxes in Kentucky,” said Michael Aldridge, Kentucky executive director of the ACLU. “We know the Commonwealth’s disenfranchisement policies, some of the harshest in the country, have negatively impacted families and communities, especially those of color, by reducing their collective political voice.

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.” 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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