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Restoring Ex-Felons' Vote Anchors Society to Justice

Commentary by Marsha Weissman
Executive Director, Center for Community Alternatives
Published in The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY

February 15, 2005

Over the last several weeks, your editorials have provided sound opinion and recommendations on critical “bookends” to criminal justice policy.

The editorial on Feb. 7 commented that changes to drug laws, “Rockefeller drug law reform” enacted by the State Legislature in December, should only be a first step in more widespread changes to those draconian laws. The editorial Feb. 11 urged restoration of the right to vote to ex-felons. Together, these point to a new way of constructing criminal justice policy, anchoring it in reintegration rather than punishment.

At the front end, a reintegration perspective would use incarceration as a last resort — Rockefeller drug law reform, for example, would allow for sentences that promote treatment rather than incarceration.

At the back end, for those persons who commit crimes that still require a prison sentence, time spent in prison would be focused on ensuring a safe and productive reentry. Restoration of voting rights is one piece of that process.

Overuse of incarceration has a particular impact on African American and Latino communities, as your editorial points out. With one in three African American young men in the criminal justice system due to what is now widely recognized due to the cumulative racial disparity at every stage of the criminal justice system (recent reports by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the American Bar Association’s Kennedy Commission), the denial of voting rights because of ex-felon status undermines the cornerstone of the hard fought civil rights battles that dominate the history of our country.

In the 2000 presidential election, more than 4.6 million Americans were barred from voting because of felon disenfranchisement laws across the country: the majority of these people were African American and Latino.

The large number of African American people in our own community who have been caught up in the criminal justice system not only denies individual voting rights, but discourages other family members from voting and depriving children of adult role models of civic engagement.

Voting is our most tangible way of participating as a law-abiding stakeholder in society. Research shows that when felons are allowed to vote and participate as citizens, it encourages them to avoid further criminal conduct.

The Center for Community Alternatives is proud to be a partner with many organizations across the country that are seeking changes in the law on a broad range of reintegration issues — voting rights, employment rights, access to public housing, access to higher education. Our Syracuse Recovery Support Program, led by people who have re-established themselves as productive members of our community, is available to help people returning from incarceration.

We host workshops on civic responsibility and are available to help people restore their voting rights. Our door is open to those seeking to become fully reintegrated into our community.

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