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Felony Convictions Keep 5.3 Million Americans from Voting

If you’ve been charged with a felony, your criminal defense attorney may have already warned you about some of the potential penalties you could face if convicted. But, for many Americans who are convicted of felonies, sentences extend well beyond any official jail or probation time prescribed by the court. Thanks to hiring policies at many companies, ex-felons can have great difficulty finding gainful employment.

And, as a recent article on points out, many states punish felons by stripping them of their right to vote. This widespread disenfranchisement is particularly concerning in light of a recent study by the Pew Center for the States, which found that the United States has the largest prison population of any country for which reliable figures exist.

Specifically, more than one in 100 Americans is currently behind bars, and one in nine black men between 18 and 34 is in prison. Consider, then, that Barack Obama, Democratic Presidential hopeful, was supported by 80% of black voters in South Carolina‘s primary, and 90% in Pennsylvania‘s, according to Amsterdam News.

A recent report from the Brenner Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law indicates that 5.3 million Americans are currently not permitted to vote because of felony convictions. Of them, four million are reportedly out of prison, working, paying taxes and living in American communities – but still unable to participate in the election process.

Currently, Maine and Vermont are the only two states that practice no form of disenfranchisement as part of the criminal corrections process – even current prisoners in those states can vote. But in 10 states, you can be convicted of crimes that strip you of your right to vote forever, and in Kentucky and Virginia, any felony conviction wins you a life sentence of not voting.

The remaining states apparently have laws that fall somewhere between those extremes, with various provisions for those currently behind bars, on probation and on parole.

According to sources, many felon disenfranchisement laws have their roots in Jim Crow laws – the laws passed after the Civil War to restrict African Americans’ voting privileges. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments ended slavery, granted ex-slaves equal citizenship and prevent discrimination in voting.

But, in an effort to limit the legislative power of the newest group of American citizens, Southern legislators enacted a series of laws that, in practice, would prohibit many newly freed slaves from being able to exercise their new rights. Some of these laws apparently included felony disenfranchisement laws, as well as the introduction of new felony offenses, many of which targeted newly-freed blacks.

Most of the provisions of Jim Crow laws – like literacy tests and poll taxes – were eliminated long ago. But felony disenfranchisement laws have largely stuck. Consider this: sources indicate that 13% of African American men have lost their right to vote, which means that disenfranchisement among this group is seven times the national average.

While these numbers are disturbing, there is hope on the horizon.

Senator Russ Feingold and Representative John Conyers are planning on introducing the Democracy Reinstatement Act of 2008 this year. The bill reportedly calls for voting rights for all Americans, regardless of criminal past, and reflects a growing recognition of the problems associated with disenfranchisement.

Those without a political voice, studies suggest, have scant reason not to reoffend and are less capable of reintegrating into society after prison sentences.

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