Last week, John F. Timoney, Miami Police Chief and President of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), placed two important issues on President-Elect Obama’s to-do list: restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions and fixing the disparity in federal crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. Chief Timoney, who is a member of the Brennan Center’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Advisory Council, believes that the current policies undermine the criminal justice system and deepen racial divisions in the United States.
Across the country there are 5.3 million American citizens who are denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction in their past. Nearly 4 million of these people are not in prison; they live, work, pay taxes, and raise families in our communities, but remain disenfranchised for years, often for decades, and sometimes for life. States vary widely on when (and how) they restore voting rights. Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise people with convictions; even prisoners may vote there. Other states do not let people vote while in prison, but have rules allowing people on probation or parole to vote. But there are still 35 states that keep people from exercising their rights as citizens after they have been released from prison.
Chief Timoney is part of a growing coalition of law enforcement and criminal justice professionals who recognize the restoring voting rights to people who are released from prison is important for democracy, and for protecting public safety. Chief Timoney writes:
It’s not that I’m some kind of bleeding-heart liberal, I just sincerely believe that this is the right thing to do. I don’t think we should give criminals an excuse for not reforming themselves because they are bitter about having one of their most important rights—the right to vote—taken away. I think it is better to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of offenders resuming a full, healthy, productive life.
Also in November, Carl Wicklund, Executive Director of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), called on the United States Commission on Human Rights to take steps to end Kentucky’s “archaic and highly restrictive” felony disenfranchisement law. Kentucky is one of only two states (Virginia is the other) that takes the right to vote away for life unless the Governor decides to restore it through the clemency process. Mr. Wicklund explained:
Reforming Kentucky’s disenfranchisement law would strengthen the prospect for sustainable rehabilitation for those with past conviction histories. There is little question that disenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of offenders.
The APPA is one of three national law enforcement organizations that have passed resolutions calling for voting rights to be restored to people who have been released from prison. The National Black Police Association and the Association of Paroling Authorities International have passed similar resolutions.
The intuitive link between civic participation and successful reentry should not be ignored by policymakers. Restoring the right to vote sends the message that people are welcomed back as integral members of their home communities. It invests them in our democracy while reminding them of the reciprocal responsibilities that citizens share.
This fall Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the Democracy Restoration Act which seeks to restore the right to vote in federal elections to people as soon as they are released from prison. President-Elect Obama and the new 111th Congress should heed the advice of experienced law enforcement professionals like Chief Timoney and Mr. Wicklund and move quickly to pass the Democracy Restoration Act.