Holder Urges Restoration of Voting Rights to Felons

, Legal Times

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Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. urged Congress today to restore voting rights to felons who are no longer under federal or state supervision, calling restrictions in place now "profoundly outdated."

Holder, speaking at a sentencing reform symposium at Georgetown University Law Center, asked lawmakers to repeal "unjust" and "counterproductive" laws that permanently disenfranchise former prisoners.

"By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes," Holder said. "They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies."

At some point, 95 percent of all the prisoners in this country will be released, Holder said. There are 5.8 million felons who cannot vote now even though they have served the time and paid the fines they owe, the attorney general said. The right to vote, he said, is critical to the successful re-entry into the community.

One in 13 African-Americans in the country is blocked from voting for this reason, and in states such as Florida, Kentucky it climbs to as high as one in five, Holder said. In Florida, he said, about 10 percent of the population is disenfranchised.

"However well-intentioned current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be – the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated," Holder said. "At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War discrimination."

The laws have never been shown to prevent new crimes or deter future criminal conduct, Holder said. Felons are not shown to be likely to commit election crimes or vote against pro-law enforcement candidates.

Holder said reforming criminal sentencing laws is not a partisan issue, and many of the reforms would have to be codified at the state level. There are 23 states that have moved to restore voting rights, but many are incremental in nature and fall short of addressing the problem head on, Holder said.

Later today, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are scheduled to discuss the push the in Congress for a legislative overhaul of the criminal justice system as the federal prison budget increases.

That includes the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. A companion bill is pending in the House.

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