WASHINGTON, D.C., April 11, 2014 – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) issued the statement below following yesterday’s introduction of the Democracy Restoration Act,S. 2235, by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). The bill is aimed at restoring voting rights in federal elections to individuals convicted of felonies after they have served their sentence and been released from incarceration:
“The re-introduction of the Democracy Restoration Act is a monumental step towards restoring equality and fairness to our electoral process,” said Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “This bill, if passed, would have the effect of enfranchising approximately 2.6 million individuals who have completed their sentences and returned to their communities, yet remain disenfranchised due to restrictive state laws.”
Currently, 5.85 million Americans are prohibited from voting, the very heart of America’s democratic system of government, due to current or previous felony convictions. Of the over 5.85 million Americans, only 25 percent are currently incarcerated.
Today, 11 states have restrictions on voting rights after an individual has served his/her time in prison and is no longer on probation or parole. In 6 of the 11 states, over 7 percent of the total population is disenfranchised. The disparate impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on minorities, specifically African Americans, is unacceptable. Due to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, these laws result in 8 percent of the total African American population – 1 in 13 African American adults – banned from the voting box. Furthermore, given the current rates of incarceration, approximately 1 in 3 of the next generation of African-American men will be disenfranchised at some point during their lifetime.
“The continued commitment to the passing of legislation like the Democracy Restoration Act demonstrated by our leaders on the Hill is critical,” shared Lawyers’ Committee Policy Director Tanya Clay House. “It is essential that we as a country continue to remove impediments to casting a ballot and empower those that seek to exercise the right to vote.” The Democracy Restoration Act, if passed, will restore the right to vote in federal elections to convicted felons who have been released from custody, convicted and put on probation, or convicted of a misdemeanor. This bill would also require states to notify ex-offenders once they become eligible to vote, and if they do not, or deny eligible citizens, ex-offenders may bring a civil action against the state.
Participation in the democratic process is more than a symbolic right of all American citizens: restoration of basic rights is essential to the rehabilitation of criminal offenders. Felony disenfranchisement laws only perpetuate the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals and may actually increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.
The right to vote should not be denied indefinitely if an individual has already fulfilled their sentence and been reintegrated back into the community. We strongly urge Congress to pass the Democracy Restoration Act and ensure that every American is given the opportunity to participate in our democracy.
About the Lawyers’ Committee: The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. We celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2013 and continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education and environmental justice. For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.