In a surprising move, Attorney General Eric Holder has teamed up with Tea Party-backed Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee to fight against felon disenfranchisement — the reality of a person convicted of a felony subsequently losing certain civil rights due to the felony conviction. This group of strange bedfellows is primarily concerned with the voting rights of those previously convicted of felonies.
According to news reports, 11 states deny or restrict voting rights to persons who have been under some form of correctional control (i.e., incarceration, probation, parole). This equates to approximately 5.8 million disenfranchised felons. In states like Florida that have particularly onerous felon disenfranchisement laws, upwards of 10 percent of the population is barred from voting. According to Attorney General Holder, 1 in 13 black American adults are prohibited from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws; 1 in 5 in Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida.
Now, with Attorney General Holders’ legacy as a justice reformer in question, he has stepped up his work to revise some of these harmful laws, which some have suggested actually encourage repeat crime and recidivism. On February 11, 2014, he and Senators Paul and Lee participated in a forum at the Georgetown Law School to discuss the issues of mandatory minimum sentencing, prison expansion, and felon disenfranchisement.
While this is a laudable step in the right direction, most recent public policy discussions concerning American criminal justice reform have tended to cherry-pick small groups of offenders to help. This group, as others, has focused on nonviolent drug offenders. For example, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), has also focused almost exclusively on drug offenders. Even the Obama administration has their favorite group to help: nonviolent, minority crack cocaine offenders who have served long sentences under the old, draconian crack cocaine sentencing guidelines.
This pet method of criminal justice reform has resulted in an even larger problem in the prison reform movement: by passing small, narrowly tailored laws to help very specific groups of prisoners, the American people and legislators feel as though they have made a difference, when they, in fact, have not impacted the lion’s share of the problem. This is foolhardy, political thinking. The only answer when it comes to American criminal justice reform is to enact legislation that affects all prisoners or those affected by America’s criminal justice system.
Releasing 8,000 crack cocaine offenders from federal prison does make a difference to those 8,000 crack cocaine defendants, but not to the other 219,000 current federal prisoners. It is high time that we stop allowing this sort of minimalistic, targeted reform — which only serves to help politicians and the American public feel that meaningful reforms have been accomplished when they haven’t — and actually deal with America’s plague of prisons as a whole. Only then will we stop spending in excess of $50 billion annually to incarcerate away crime, even if that crime control method has proven time and time again to be an abject failure.
For more information about this forum or other criminal justice politics, visit http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2014/02/11/holder-calls-for-restoring-ex-cons-voting-rights/ or prisoneducation.com/prison-education-news/.