Senate Passes Bill to Lift Voting Limits on Felons

By Ovetta Wiggins and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Senate gave final approval yesterday to a bill that allows felons to register to vote, which would make Maryland the 37th state to fully restore voting rights to felons if the House approves the measure.

The vote followed a protracted, sometimes tense debate over whether criminals should have the right to participate in electoral democracy.

Under current Maryland law, people convicted of two or more felonies must wait three years after their sentences are completed before they can vote. Persons with two violent felony convictions cannot vote. The bill would repeal both restrictions.

Proponents of the bill said voting is not a reward, but a right. They argued that restoring a felon's ability to vote is needed in the rehabilitative process.

"They are coming back into our society," said Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George's). "And we want them to pay taxes. And they should be able to vote."

But opponents questioned the logic of the legislation, arguing that the measure "awards" criminals despite their behavior.

"I think the world is upside down that we're debating this," said Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County). "The contract with government is that you obey the law. . . . You've got to draw the line somewhere."

The bill was one of several crime-related measures that moved through the General Assembly yesterday.

The House approved a bill that state prosecutors said would bolster their powers in cases against gang members. The bill would allow prosecutors to introduce to juries evidence that individual crimes were orchestrated by gang leaders so that charges could be made against them. It would also allow prosecutors to go after not only those who committed a crime but also gang accomplices who helped carry out the plan.

The Maryland Gang Prosecution Act of 2007 comes in response to rising gang violence, particularly in suburban areas. The Senate has yet to vote on the bill.

Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's) said he was disappointed that the legislation had no money attached for interventions such as after-school programs to help teenagers choose other activities besides joining gangs.

The Senate also gave preliminary approval to a measure that would create a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for an adult who commits a third-degree sexual offense against a minor.

The House also narrowly defeated a measure to allow twice-convicted drug dealers the chance for parole instead of the mandatory 10-year sentence the law requires.

The bill fell short of approval by one vote. A drug dealer would have been eligible for parole after five years. Supporters said they hoped to help get drug dealers who sell to support their addictions out of prison and into treatment.

The bill would not have applied to violent offenders. But it ran into stiff resistance from lawmakers who said the state should not go easy on drug dealers.

"I don't feel sorry for drug dealers," said Del. Richard K. Impallaria (R-Baltimore County). "They're not misunderstood. We understand them. Let's keep them in jail."

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