Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘inmate voting

Because of Felon Disenfranchisement, One in Four Kentucky Blacks Can’t Vote

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The Brennan Center for Justice reports that one in four African-Americans in Kentucky has lost the right to vote, due to “Kentucky’s archaic criminal disenfranchisement law.” Anyone who has ever been committed of a felony in Kentucky is barred from voting for life, unless he/she gets clemency from the governor. (Virginia is the only other state in the union with such a sweeping felon disenfranchisement law.) Note that although African-Americans are only about 8% of the Kentucky population, they make up 1/3 of the incarcerated population in the Bluegrass State. I’ve blogged before on felon disenfranchisement, and as I noted then — and it’s worth repeating — felon disenfranchisement laws were typically first passed in the late nineteenth century specifically with the intention of disenfranchising black voters. As Pippa Holloway has demonstrated, in many states this was done in tandem with legislation to expand the definition of “felony” to include petty theft, making it easier to use felony prosecutions as a tool of disenfranchisement. Not coincidentally, in the late nineteenth century, felony conviction rates of black men would rise markedly in the months leading up to elections. A South Carolina Republican complained after the 1884 elections (quoted by Holloway, p. 950):

“Negroes are frequently arraigned before petty magistrates on the most trivial charges of larceny, and a conviction in these petty courts is sufficient to disfranchise them forever. This conviction is readily obtained, and the whole proceedings clearly indicate, in many cases, that the prosecution is merely a pretext to deprive the negro of his vote.”

Update: See also this Brennan Center post on Congressional hearings today on the proposed Democracy Restoration Act, which would allow all ex-felons to vote in federal elections, regardless of whether they can vote in state elections. For the Brennan Center’s explanation of its position that such a law would be constitutional, see here.

Written by sara

March 16, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Local Pols to Prisoners: You Live In Our County When It Helps Us, Not When It Helps You

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The Prison Policy Initiative’s Prisoners of the Census blog points out that while legislators are happy to count prisoners as residents of their districts come Census time, they’re not legally considered residents for just about any other purpose:

When the Census is not underway and the news cameras are not around, no politician treats the people in local prison cells as residents or constituents.

Most services and benefits that are available only to residents are things that by the nature of their incarceration, people in prison couldn’t take advantage of. We’ll never know if a town with a prison and a residents-only beach would welcome an incarcerated person to swim. Other laws prevent incarcerated people from wandering freely down to the beach. There is, however, one local right that an incarcerated person could exercise if they were a resident of the prison county. The right to divorce in local courts, a right accessible to all county residents, is frequently, if not universally, denied to people whose only tie to the county is incarceration.

When incarcerated people petition the local court for a divorce, they are rejected because they are not residents and instructed to file for divorce in their home county. This is true even if the incarcerated person was married in the prison. (See Washington County Chief Clerk Kathleen M. LaBelle to Troy Johnson, Feb 27, 2003 and March 21, 2003.) In June 2009, Acting Supreme Court Justice Patrick R. McGill in Clinton ruled that despite concluding that the incarcerated person seeking divorce was married at the correctional facility in the county 3 years prior:

“The plaintiff is an inmate at the Clinton Correctional Facility and seeks poor person status… The plaintiff has not established however, that he is a resident of the County of Clinton as the result of any voluntary decision on his part; rather, he is merely present in this county by virtue of his incarceration and may be transferred to a facility in another county at any time.”

NPR’s All Things Considered reported today on the issue of where to count prisoners. For my earlier posts on prisoners and the Census, click here and here.

Written by sara

February 15, 2010 at 9:52 pm

The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Yankee Edition)

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NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice has published an important new report, Jim Crow in New York, tracing the history and ongoing impact of New York’s racially-motivated felon disenfranchisement laws. The report demonstrates that “Jim Crow was not confined to the South” (p. 4) and that he is not dead. The upshot (p. 14):

The mandatory criminal disenfranchisement provision put in place in 1874 is nearly identical to the provision that remains the law in New York today, and it continues to have its intended effects. The current law in New York denies the right to vote to any citizen in prison or on parole. Nearly 80% of those who have lost their right to vote under New York’s law are African-American and Hispanic. Almost half of those disenfranchised are out of prison, living in the community.

Restoring voting rights to those who are in the community increases public safety. Many law enforcement and criminal justice officials are speaking out against disenfranchisement because they recognize that bringing people into the political process makes them stakeholders, which helps steer former offenders away from future crimes.

Criminal disenfranchisement laws also harm families and entire communities. Studies show that denying the vote to one person has a ripple effect across families, dramatically decreasing the political power of urban and minority communities.

The New York Times covers the Brennan Center report here; earlier, I blogged here about ongoing litigation over felon disenfranchisement in Washington State. For comparative context, an interesting scholarly article on Southern felon disenfranchisement laws is available for download here, entitled “‘A Chicken-Stealer Shall Lose His Vote’: Disfranchisement for Larceny in the South, 1874-1890,” by Pippa Holloway. And finally, for a broader version of the argument that collateral consequences for felony convictions add up to a new form of legal segregation, see Michelle Alexander’s new book The New Jim Crow.

Ninth Circuit to Inmate Voters: Not So Fast

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A few weeks ago, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled that Washington State’s felon disenfranchisement law violates the Voting Rights Act (full opinion can be downloaded here), because it has the effect of disproportionately disenfranchising minority voters. (Three other federal circuits have upheld similar laws in other states.) Today, the panel granted Washington’s request to temporarily suspend its ruling, so as to give the state time to appeal to the Supreme Court (stay order can be downloaded here). Basically, the panel agreed not to issue right away a mandate that would have required state and county election officials to immediately begin allowing inmates and felons on community supervision to register and to cast ballots. That means inmates won’t be able to vote in the county special elections currently ongoing throughout Washington State.

Written by sara

January 28, 2010 at 7:34 pm

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