States Ease Voting Restrictions on
By ROBERT TANNER, AP
(Sept. 24) -- Nearly a half-million ex-cons have
regained their voting rights since 1996 as eight states eased their
restrictions on felons, an advocacy group says in a new study.
Despite the changes, an estimated 4 million
citizens remain barred from voting because they are in prison for felonies
or have felony records, according to The Sentencing Project, a
Washington-based group that seeks alternatives to incarceration.
"Americans have traditionally believed that once
you paid your debt to society, you're free to rejoin the community. This
clearly conflicts with that," said Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.
"Support for reform is growing very broadly."
From 1996 to 2003, states took a variety of
approaches, the study found.
Nevada and Wyoming repealed lifetime bans for
first-time, nonviolent felons; Delaware repealed a lifetime ban but now
requires a five-year waiting period; Texas dropped the two-year waiting
period that had earlier replaced a lifetime ban.
Other states that eased restrictions were
Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico and Virginia.
Overall, those changes meant that at least 471,000
former prison inmates have had their voting rights restored, according to
an analysis cited by the project.
But states did not always make voting easier for
felons. In Massachusetts and Utah, voter referendums took away the right
of felons to vote behind bars. The move affected about 23,000 inmates.
Now, only Maine and Vermont allow such voting.
Some conservatives said the push to let felons vote
"People who violate the rights of others and have
harmed others should still be excluded," said David Muhlhausen, a senior
policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
The Sentencing Project is part of a larger campaign
involving civil rights organizations and advocacy groups for the poor.
They are seeking to press states to ease restrictions on felons,
emphasizing the harm that prohibitions do to the black community.
Of 4 million disenfranchised voters, blacks make up
one-third, researchers estimate. Overall, some 13 percent of all black men
are barred from voting because of such laws.
"I've been relegated to the same status as my
ancestors when they were in slavery," said Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, a
community organizer in New York who served 13 years of a 20-year
He has been out of prison and on parole for two
years, but under state law will not be able to cast a vote for mayor,
governor or president until his full sentence is complete.
"I'm a taxpayer and I'm a citizen," Hayden said.
"I'm a very political person. I have opinions on everything that human
beings do, but I have no voice."
There were 2.1 million people in federal, state and
local lockups at the end of 2002. Counting those behind bars and those who
once had been, the Justice Department estimated there were 5.6 million
with "prison experience" in 2001.
09/24/03 06:04 EDT
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