Ex-convicts urged to register and vote

`It's up to us' to improve the corrections system, a church leader says

August 22, 2004|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

Standing behind the pulpit at Cornerstone Church of Christ, Archie Hill studied his notes and waited as a steady stream of men and women ducked out of the rain and crowded into the polished wooden pews.

Several minutes later, with the group settled and its chatter quieted, he finally began to speak.

But Hill did not sermonize or offer much spiritual advice to those gathered yesterday morning at the Park Heights Avenue house of worship.

Instead, the founder and director of the church's Barnabas Prison Ministry outreach program asked the assembled ex-offenders - many newly released - to do something that he believes could make a difference in their lives and the community as a whole.

He asked them to vote.

A plea for action

"Now that we're out, it's up to us to make sure that it [the corrections system] is better for other people," boomed Hill, himself an ex-offender, as he pleaded with the group to register at a table in the church's vestibule.

But as he spoke, Hill knew that he would have to wait again, much longer this time, for many in the crowd to follow his lead.

That's because state law prohibits some ex-offenders from voting until long after their sentences are complete.

According to a report by Washington-based advocacy group the Sentencing Project, Maryland is among a handful of states that extend periods of disenfranchisement for years past some ex-felons' release dates.

Maryland prohibits two-time felons from voting until three years after they have completed their sentence.

The rule not only violates ex-offenders' rights, it creates another barrier to self-sufficiency, said Hassan Allen-Giordano of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, speaking to the crowd.

"We face a lot of obstacles," said Allen-Giordano, rattling through the list of government programs, including food stamps and housing assistance, that are off-limits to certain local ex-offenders. But having voting rights restored would "open up other avenues" for many, he said, because politicians are more likely to listen to and assist people who are their constituents.

About 15 people registered at the end of yesterday's rally, and Hill said he will continue to organize and motivate the local ex-offender population.

Next meeting planned

He is planning another gathering in February at which he will invite discussion about criminal justice issues and legislative proposals.

"It's our time - my purpose behind this ... is to create a movement of us," he said.

"Six months from now, we'll be in Annapolis."

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