Voting rights for felons pushed

Legislation would allow ballots to be cast once terms have been served

February 20, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTER

Lawmakers renewed their drive yesterday to give convicted felons the right to vote in Maryland, promising to push legislation through the General Assembly this year that would allow them to cast ballots when they get out of jail.

"A person's right to vote is his or her badge of citizenship, and without it all other rights are in jeopardy," said Prince George's County Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, a Democrat sponsoring one of the proposals.

With the Legislative Black Caucus behind the bill, advocates are hoping to strike a law from the books requiring three years to elapse after completion of a sentence before voting rights can be restored. Instead, under their proposal, only those serving prison time would not be able to vote. A similar measure stalled in the legislature last year.

Before an audience of about 300, proponents of the bill said that people who have served their time and worked to rehabilitate themselves deserve a second chance. They described voting as one key to re-entering society.

"People who feel they have a stake in the community are much less likely to victimize people," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington group promoting criminal justice reform.

The group estimates that 5.3 million Americans, or one in 41 adults nationwide, have lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction. Three states deny the right to vote to all ex-offenders who have completed their sentences, while nine others apply a waiting period or prevent certain categories of criminals from voting.

Only Maine and Vermont permit inmates to vote, according to the Sentencing Project.

In 2002, Maryland lawmakers voted to repeal a lifetime ban on voting for some felons and to impose the three-year waiting period.

Baltimore state Sen. Verna L. Jones, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said the group is throwing its weight behind the latest round of legislation, a version of which has been introduced in the House of Delegates. She said that felons have stumbled in the mud and that preventing them from voting is "all about keeping them wallowing in that mud."

"Empowerment through restoration and parity, this is what these pieces of legislation are about," she said.

Damond Ramsey, 39, of Baltimore, who served 18 months in jail for two drug-related felonies, said in Annapolis yesterday that he wants to feel invested in the democratic process. He said he is working for a church-run HIV testing and education program. But Ramsey, who was released from prison in 2004, said that without the vote, he does not feel like a full citizen.

"That change cannot be complete unless I can vote," he said. "My vote will make a difference in the lives of my children."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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