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Oct 18 / Erin Ferns Lee

The Disenfranchisement of Communities through the Criminal Justice System

Expanding ballot access to all voting-age citizens, particularly the millions who are living and working in our communities with past felony convictions, has been the foundation of many advocates’ pleas to make American life equitable. Whether wrapped in an argument to fend against racism, classism, or even “overcriminalization,” felon advocates’ main issue boils down to preserving the civil rights of every citizen who participates in society, no matter their personal history.

Congress has been paying attention to the federal government’s apparent tendency toward “overcriminalization” or “penchant for writing new laws to criminalize conduct that could be addressed with fines or other remedies,” that ultimately overfill prisons and unfairly restrict otherwise productive citizens of important rights, such as voting, according to a McClatchy Newspapers report earlier this month.

For example, Abner Schoenwetter, a seafood importer, spent six years in prison for agreeing to purchase lobster tails that violated harvest regulations in Honduras. Now, the 64-year-old Florida man “is a convicted felon with an ailing wife, no job or right to vote and three years of supervised release ahead of him.”

“We’re talking about people’s freedom and the way it affects people’s faith in their government or lack thereof. We’ve got to get this cleaned up,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) at a hearing in the House Judiciary subcommittee hearing recently.

“Overcriminalization” particularly hurts citizens in states with more restrictive rules on felon disenfranchisement. All but two states restrict convicted felons from voting rights at some point in their sentences, leaving four million citizens voiceless, but “free” in our communities, a disproportionate number belonging African-American or low-income neighborhoods. Earlier this year, Congress attempted to address this issue by setting a federal standard for disenfranchisement rules with the introduction of the Democracy Restoration Act. But, the bill hasn’t progressed since March.

Overcriminalization and the lack of a federal standard for disenfranchisement rules exacerbates the criminal justice system’s inherent racial and economic biases that affect the quality of life of both the released convicted felons as well as the communities to which they return.

Last month, Washington’s ban on felon voting–which was struck down in January as racially discriminatory by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals– was once again heard by the same court. According to OPB News, Secretary of State Sam Reed defends the law, saying “we believe the loss of voting rights is really a reasonable and appropriate sanction for society to demand of felons while they are behind bars or on community supervision.” However, in a state where “African Americans make up 4-percent of the general population, but 17-percent of the prison population,” something isn’t right.

“Even if a punishment is reasonable it shouldn’t be meted out to a group of people more frequently just because of the color of their skin,” said attorney Dale Ho with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

According to a new Brennan Center for Justice report, Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, a growing trend in felon punishment are “user fees” or “financial obligations imposed not for any traditional criminal justice purpose such as punishment, deterrence, or rehabilitation but rather to fund tight state budgets.”

“But in the rush to collect, made all the more intense by the fiscal crises in many states, no one is considering the ways in which the resulting debt can undermine reentry prospects, pave the way back to prison or jail, and result in yet more costs to the public.”

Whether advocates for ex-offenders cite “overcriminalization” or racial or economic biases as hindrances to reintegration into society, ultimately ballot access for ex-offenders is vital to American life. It can start with consistent polices to prevent large-scale disenfranchisement of both ex-offenders (and their communities) because democracy works best when all Americans can participate.

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