Restoring rights

February 23, 2007

Relatively few states permit all prison inmates to vote in elections. Nearly as few impose a lifetime voting ban on all ex-offenders. What most states do is set a more moderate course by denying convicted felons the right to vote until they've completed their sentences. Unfortunately, Maryland law is a rather complicated, confusing and cumbersome hybrid (not only extending to parole and probation but also involving a three-year waiting period and an "infamous crimes" provision) that has disenfranchised far too many voters.

It should come as no surprise that the Legislative Black Caucus in Annapolis announced this week its support for legislation extending the right to all but prison inmates. The reform is overdue, and what the caucus proposes is reasonable. It's no secret that predominantly black jurisdictions such as Baltimore and Prince George's County have been disproportionately hurt by current law - thanks in no small part to a national war on drugs that has dramatically expanded the prison population.

It comes down to this: Anyone who has served his or her time for a criminal conviction ought to then be allowed to be a full participant in society. Isn't that how the criminal justice system is supposed to work? It's a safe bet that there never has been a crime deterred by the threat of losing one's voting rights. ("Halt or you won't be able to vote in 2008" won't stop many criminals in their tracks.) Disenfranchising a well-meaning ex-offender who is trying to return to a normal and productive life, however, sends exactly the wrong message.

No politician likes to be seen as soft on crime or criminals, but many states are beginning to reconsider this issue. Voters in Rhode Island chose to restore the voting rights of convicted felons on parole and probation through a ballot initiative last November. Denying voting rights only to those in prison is the approach also taken in the District of Columbia and 12 states, including Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Fundamentally, it's a matter of fairness. Nationwide, an estimated 5.3 million Americans have currently or permanently lost their voting rights, including 1.4 million African-American men. It's gotten to be far too large a portion of the electorate to be ignored any longer.

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