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States Limit Ex-Cons' Voting Rights, Report Says

February 16, 2005|Elise Castelli | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — About 1.5 million convicted felons who have completed their sentences are still denied the right to vote, according to a report released today.

Unlike the District of Columbia and 34 states, including California, where voting rights are automatically restored to convicted felons who have completed their sentences, 14 states severely restrict -- or even prohibit -- onetime prisoners from casting ballots.

Former prisoners in those states can apply to have their voting rights restored, but few have the means to navigate the cumbersome and confusing processes to do so, says the report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that studies criminal justice issues.

Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska and Virginia disenfranchise individuals with a felony conviction; eight states -- Arizona, Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Washington and Wyoming -- prohibit voting based on specific criteria, such as the type or number of convictions.

The felons' inability to have voting rights restored is "a combination of a lack of information, poor technology and limited assistance," said Marc Mauer, the group's assistant director and coauthor of the report.

"In most states, relatively few people even know about the process or get any kind of assistance in navigating that process -- and that tells us something about the lack of priority some of these states place on this topic."

In some states, the process requires former prisoners to seek a pardon. Others have waiting periods as long as a decade before felons can apply to have their rights restored.

To remedy these perceived wrongs, the report suggests that states repeal bans on voting for individuals who have completed their sentences, eliminate waiting periods for restoration, help eligible people through the process and report annually on the number of restorations applied for and granted.

The group also suggests imposing alternative sentences, such as treatment programs for substance abuse cases, to prevent the consequence of a felony conviction.

Restoring felons' voting rights can help them stay out of trouble, Mauer said.

"Good job, family and community connections are critical, and voting is one more factor that gives a positive connection to the community -- and any time you can increase the positive connections, that contributes to reducing crime," he said.

Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, disagreed. "I don't think you help in a rehabilitation process to give something to someone automatically," he said. "It helps in the rehabilitation process if you have to demonstrate worthiness."

Gaziano said that more states should adopt review processes like the 14 that the Sentencing Project criticizes.

"The reform that is really needed is for more states to actually require some demonstration that the felon is deserving to join the body politic again," he said. "Do we trust felons to automatically have guns back when they serve their time?"

Two states -- Maine and Vermont -- allow prisoners to vote.

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