[fla-left] [civil rights] Barred for Life (fwd)

Michael Hoover hoov at SPAMfreenet.tlh.fl.us
Mon May 29 05:10:28 MDT 2000

forwarded by Michael Hoover

> Barred for Life
> Ron Nixon
> The Progressive
> May 2000
> Twelve years ago, Derrick Gayle, now thirty, fell in with the wrong crowd.
> He did drugs and dabbled in hot merchandise. He never expected to get
> caught. But he did. Charged with possession of marijuana and receiving
> stolen property, he spent nine years in Alabama's Bullock County
> Correctional Facility.
> Gayle was released three years ago. He works a regular job and stays drug
> free and out of trouble, he says. He has tried to put his past behind him.
> But the state of Alabama won't let him. He is still denied one of the most
> basic rights of a free man: He can't vote.
> "What more do I have to do to prove that I've repaid my debt to society?
> I've done my time," says Gayle, who works putting up wallpaper paper and
> building bookshelves. "All I want is the right to vote like everyone else."
> The state of Alabama permanently bars people convicted of felonies from
> exercising the right to vote. In a state where some of the hardest battles
> over voting rights were fought, more than 100,000 black men like Gayle --
> 31 percent of the black male population -- are denied the franchise.
> This disenfranchisement is not restricted to Alabama, though.
> Nine other states disenfranchise felons for life: Delaware, Florida, Iowa,
> Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming. Arizona
> and Maryland permanently disenfranchise those convicted of a second felony;
> and Tennessee and Washington permanently disenfranchise those convicted
> prior to 1986 and 1984, respectively. Most other states have intermediate
> suspensions of voting rights for felons, while four -- Massachusetts,
> Maine, Vermont, and Utah -- do allow felons to vote.
> The number of black men excluded from voting is startling. In Florida, like
> Alabama, 31 percent of all black men are permanently disenfranchised. In
> Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming, one in
> four black men is currently or permanently disenfranchised. In Delaware and
> Texas, it's one in five. In Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and
> Wisconsin, 16 to 18 percent are currently disenfranchised.
> A report last year, "Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony
> Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States," put out by the Sentencing
> Project, a public interest group in Washington, D.C., found that African
> Americans made up nearly half of those denied the right to vote. An
> estimated 1.4 million black men -- or 13 percent of the entire black male
> population -- were disenfranchised.
> Behind the large number of blacks denied the right to vote is the so-called
> war on drugs. In 1997, more than 271,000 people in state or federal prisons
> were incarcerated for drug offenses; 100,000 of those for mere possession.
> Blacks are convicted of drug offensees at about five times the rate of
> whites, even though both groups use drugs at a comparable level.
> Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project and co-author of
> the voting report, likens the practice of disenfranchising felons to Jim
> Crow laws like literacy tests and poll taxes. "I don't think it's designed
> to disenfranchise African Americans, but that's been the impact," he says.
> In some states where felons are denied the right to vote, activists and
> sympathetic legislators are asking that the laws be changed so millions of
> people can again have a voice in decisions that affect their lives.
> "At a time when there are attacks on affirmative action and other rights
> that blacks have fought so hard for, a good percentage of our population
> can't even vote and help stem the tide against this kind of thing," says
> Gwen Patton, a voting rights activist and professor at H. Council Trenholm
> State Technical Colleg in Montgomery, Alabama.
> "This is a major issue for us," says Earl Shinhoster, director of voter
> empowerment for the NAACP, which is waging a massive voter education
> campaign centered on the issue of suffrage for former felons. "You have to
> make the public aware of these things -- that's the key. Given the feeling
> among most whites and even blacks, they could give a damn.We have to show
> them why this is important."
> Selma, Alabama, Derrick Gayle's hometown, is a shrine of the civil rights
> movement. It was here that dozens of civil rights activists, including
> current Congressman John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, were beaten by police
> as they tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. The city
> is more than 60 percent black, yet whites still hold power. For instance,
> the town's white mayor, Joe Smitterman, has been in office since the 1960s.
> Activists in Alabama suspect the disenfranchisement of ex-offenders may
> have contributed to the loss of the state's first black district attorney,
> Barren Lankerster, who was defeated in his reelection bid by fewer than 100
> votes.
> "We talked to several people who said they would have loved to vote but
> couldn't because they had been convicted of a felony," says John Zipper,
> publisher of the weekly Green County Democrat in Eutaw, Alabama. "This
> certainty had an impact."
> Alabama used to disenfranchise even more people. Until a 1985 U.S. Supreme
> Court decision disallowed the practice, the state would take the vote away
> from people who had been convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude --
> most were misdemeanors and required no jail time. Blacks were nearly ten
> times as likely as whites to be barred for such crimes. The Court found
> that the law was specifically designed to discriminate against blacks. It
> originated at a 1901 state constitutional convention, where Southern
> Democrats, still smarting from the Civil War, tried to formulate a law that
> would disenfranchise blacks but "stay within the limits of the
> Constitution, imposed by the federal Constitution, to establish white
> supremacy in this state," as John B. Knox, president of the convention,
> said in his opening speech.
> "Change the names, but the focus remains the same," says the Reverend David
> Spencer, a minister who lives just outside of Tuskegee, Alabama. Spencer
> works with prisoners and believes they should have the right to vote when
> they are freed.
> But many legislators don't see it that way. "It's my position that
> convicted felons ought to have demonstrated some kind of civic
> responsibility before you arbitrarily give it back," says Alabama state
> legislator Mark Gaines, a Republican.
> Jacqueline Lewis, a former Republican Massachusetts state legislator,
> agrees. She sponsored legislation that would have overturned the
> Massachusetts law that allows felons to vote. In Massachusetts, the more
> than 20,000 prisoners in jails and prison are eligible to vote by absentee
> ballot.
> "You have someone who rapes and mutilates a child, goes to prison for a
> short while, and is still allowed to vote. That sickens me," she says.
> "The child molester argument is used to scare people," says Shinhoster of
> the NAACP. "Everyone who has committed a felony is not a child molester,
> and a lot of these folks have done their time and simply want to vote on
> matters that affect their lives."
> Yvonne Kennedy would like Derrick Gayle's vote. A six-term Democratic state
> representative in Alabama, Kennedy has introduced legislation to give
> former felons their right to vote back. The bill has twice been defeated,
> but Kennedy said she is undeterred.
> "More and more, I feel optimistic about it," she says.
> Kennedy is one of a growing number of legislators who have filed bills that
> would make it legal for felons to vote once they have served their time. In
> Georgia, State Representative Bob Holmes, a Democrat, has repeatedly
> sponsored bills to restore the voting rights of felons and plans to do so
> again this year. In Florida, black legislators have introduced bills that
> would restore the right to vote to former felons. The Pennsylvania state
> legislature is holding hearings on the issue, as well.
> There is also action at the federal level.
> On October 21, 1999, the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary
> Committee held a hearing on the bill HR 906, the "Civic Participation and
> Rehabilitation Act of 1999." The bild Rehabilitation Act of 1999." The
> bill, introduced by Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and
> thirty co-sponsors, would allow nonincarcerated felons and ex-felons to
> vote in federal elections, even if state law precludes them from voting in
> state elections.
> "If we want former felons to become good citizens, we must give them the
> rights as well as responsibilities, and there is no greater responsibility
> than voting," Conyers has said.
> Black legislators realize they face a tough battle in trying to get felons
> the right to vote. "We know it's not going to be the most popular thing,"
> says Yvonne Kennedy. "But it's the right thing to do. I don't believe
> someone should be barred from a basic right once they have paid their debt
> to society. No one should be punished for life."
> Ron Nixon is a Virginia-based investigative reporter.

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