When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder remarked last week that we should restore voting rights to people who have served their sentences after a felony conviction, Andy Silverman couldn’t have agreed more.
For the past eight years, Silverman, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Arizona, has worked with hundreds of Arizonans to regain their civil rights, including their right to vote. If you believe that the right to vote in this country is precious and should be protected, then you’d likely agree with Silverman and Holder.
“It is the basic right of being a citizen,” said Silverman, who is in his 44th year at James E. Rogers College of Law and director of the Civil Rights Restoration Clinic, which offers free legal services.
But that right is denied to thousands of Arizonans who have completed their sentences but who continue to confront barriers to resume productive lives, including to vote.
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Holder said in a speech last Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.: “Those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives. They could not vote.”
Since voting regulations are state rights, the U.S. Justice Department can do little to restore voting rights, other than bring attention to the growing issue, as Holder did. It’s a growing issue because the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the industrialized world.
According to a 2012 study by The Sentencing Project, 5.85 million people, as of 2010, are denied the right to vote. Of the nearly six million, 75 percent have fully completed their sentences or are under supervision while on probation or parole, said the report.
This, shamefully, makes the United States one of the harshest countries in denying the vote to convicted individuals or those who have served their sentences.
Silverman said denying ex-felons the right to vote has deep historical roots, and he likens it to the poll tax, which segregated Southern states used to keep African-Americans from voting.
Our state, which often resembles the Jim Crow South in issues related to immigration, education and election laws, holds firm to stringent requirements that prevent a majority of ex-felons from regaining their civil rights.
Silverman explained that there are several categories affecting individuals convicted of felonies. The most basic automatically restores civil rights to people who are convicted of one felony and do not owe fines or restitution. This affects a minority.
For all others, the restitution of their civil rights comes only after they complete a maze of petitions to the court and full payment of fines or restitution, which for someone coming out of prison is almost impossible, said Silverman.
They have no jobs and no money. Jobs and housing are denied to ex-felons because they were in prison. Their options are few and unappealing, which leads to recidivism.
“People are denied their right to vote because they’re poor, unable to pay,” said Silverman. “It becomes a poll tax.”
Only Maine and Vermont have no voting restrictions for inmates and ex-felons. Arizona is one of 11 states that disenfranchises inmates, ex-felons, parolees and probationers, according to The Sentencing Project.
This also has become an issue of race, as ethnic minorities are more likely to be imprisoned. In its report, The Sentencing Project said that “much of the nation now disenfranchises at least 5 percent of its African-American adult citizens.”
Silverman said it makes no sense to tie the monetary aspect of a sentence to a person’s right to vote after they have served their time in prison.
“They (ex-felons) have obviously completed what most people consider the crucial part of their sentence,” said Silverman. “Once they complete their sentence we should want them to feel whole again, full citizens.”
The tougher we make after-prison life for ex-felons, the more likely they will return to prison, said Silverman. The failure to restore full civil rights is “a life sentence.”
Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4187.