Recently, the Obama administration continued to focus on criminal justice reform by zeroing in on felony disenfranchisement and calling for the restoration of voting rights to former felons. In a speech during a criminal justice reform event at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder called the laws that disenfranchise “unnecessary and unjust” and said that they rooted in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”
As someone who has always advocated for the reform of felony disenfranchisement laws, I was elated to see Attorney General Holder step forward on the issue.
In 1997 when I was released from prison after serving 12 years of a 15 to life sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws, I had no clue about my eligibility to cast a vote. When I went to register to vote, I was stunned when they informed me that I had to wait until I was first released from parole.
In New York, if you are convicted of a felony, you automatically lose your right to vote, but that right to vote is restored once you have completed either parole or your maximum sentence. If you are on probation, your right to vote is never taken away.
I felt the pain of felony disenfranchisement since it seemed I was being further punished for my crime. I saw my neighborhood deteriorating around me, but I was powerless to do anything about it by casting my vote. After five years, I got off parole and was able to cast my first vote since being released from prison. I felt relieved that I was fully welcomed back into society as a citizen in my ability to cast a vote.
Holder confirmed what I had felt when he went on to say went on to say that felony disenfranchisement laws date to a time when policies were used not to improve public safety, but purely at punitive measures.
"By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes, they undermine the reentry process and defy the principles of accountability and rehabilitation that guide our criminal justice policies. And however well-intentioned current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be, the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated," Holder said.
There are an estimated 5.8 million Americans who have felt the sting of felony disfranchisement laws. Eleven states currently restrict voting rights for former felons even after they have served their prison sentence and are no longer on parole.
Holder called Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) a "leader" on the issue of restoring voting rights to former felons, and said Paul's "vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines."
The issue is getting renewed focus by the Justice Department, which in March 2010 did not send any representative to a hearing of a House Judiciary subcommittee on the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill that would restore the voting rights of felons upon their release from prison.
"It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values," Holder said. "These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed."