Advocates Settle Lawsuit on Voting Rights, Historic Voter Education Effort to Proceed in Alabama Prisons
Local and National Organizations Join the New Bottom Line Campaign to Enter Jails and Hit the Streets to Register Eligible Voters with Felony Convictions for Drug Possession
Yesterday, a settlement was reached between The Ordinary People's Society (TOPS) and the Alabama Department of Corrections, allowing Reverend Glasgow to resume his non-partisan ministry to register eligible voters currently incarcerated in the state's correctional facilities.
The lawsuit was filed after the Alabama Department of Corrections cancelled Reverend Glasgow's ministry following the Alabama Republican Party's objection to his voter education activities. NAACP Legal Defense Fund, under Ryan Haygood, acted as counsel for TOPS in the lawsuit.
"Now I can continue the ministry that God gave me: helping to give a voice to the voiceless by reaching out to people in Alabama's correctional facilities who are eligible to vote," said Reverend Glasgow. "The ministry is so critical because too many in Alabama's correctional facilities who are eligible to vote don't know it. What's worse is that literally thousands of people are incarcerated in our state prisons for drug possession alone--these people deserve treatment, not incarceration."
In Alabama, nearly 250,000 people have been stripped of their voting rights due to a felony conviction. But in a 2006 court ruling in Alabama, a judge found that only those persons convicted of felonies of "moral turpitude" lose their right to vote. The judge found that certain felonies--such as drug possession--do not constitute crimes of moral turpitude, and therefore individuals convicted of those crimes do not lose their right to vote, even during incarceration.
Alabama-based The Ordinary People's Society and their national partner the Drug Policy Alliance estimate that over 50,000 people convicted of non-moral turpitude felonies in Alabama have been wrongly denied their right to vote, or believe they do not have that right due to a conviction. An additional 6 -- 7,000 more people currently incarcerated in Alabama state prisons are eligible to vote.
As the voter registration deadline nears, the New Bottom Line Campaign is making a final push to make sure that all eligible voters--both inside and outside prisons--are able to register to vote. Local and national advocates joining the New Bottom Line Campaign this week include the state and national NAACP, Project Hope, and Alabama Arise. "We are grateful for the wide array of support we have received thus far," said Rev. Glasgow, who is also the state coordinator for the New Bottom Line Campaign. "We can all contribute by making sure that our brothers and sisters who have a felony conviction understand that they may never have lost their voting rights. Every eligible voter should register today; it's another way we can contribute to our communities."
Alabama is facing a crisis. The state has the 6th highest rate of incarceration in the U.S. A prison system designed for 12,500 people now holds nearly 30,000. As a result of the drug war, non-violent drug offenses make up approximately 30% of all felony convictions in Alabama, and people convicted of non-violent drug and property offenses comprise nearly half of the state's prison population. Nearly 50% of prisoners are serving prison time for a drug related crime. And over 250,000 people are barred from voting due to felony disfranchisement laws. The recent court ruling upholding the right to vote for people convicted of drug possession, among other offenses, could have an impact on nearly 70,000 Alabamians, including nearly 10,000 currently incarcerated in state prisons.
While drug use is equal across all racial groups, Black people are incarcerated for drug crimes at far higher rates than whites. Blacks make up only 26% of Alabama's population, but are nearly 60% of the prison population. And for every white person in an Alabama jail, there are about 4 times as many Black people.
Alabama is spending millions to incarcerate people when treatment is more effective and far cheaper. The average cost to keep a person in prison in Alabama is almost $13,000 per year. The average cost of a full treatment program per client is approximately $4,300. Over time, the savings from treatment are significant: Studies by the RAND Corporation have shown that every additional dollar invested in substance abuse treatment saves taxpayers $7.46 in societal costs.
"We've got to start restoring people's lives, by providing treatment, by restoring the right to vote," said Gabriel Sayegh, a policy director with the Drug Policy Alliance, which serves as the national partner in the New Bottom Line Campaign. "When a person gets a felony conviction, they can lose more than their voting rights; they can lose public assistance, public housing, and financial aid for school. The drug war became a war on people and we spend more on incarceration than on treatment. How is this possible when we know treatment is cheaper and more effective? We need a new bottom line."