Sunday, May 13, 2007
The scarlet "F" worn by millions of Americans because of past felony convictions faded for some on April 24 as 52,000 citizens who live in Maryland regained their right to vote.
Kimberly Haven is one of those whose rights were restored when Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed the Voting Registration Protection Act, which re-enfranchises citizens who have completed their felony sentences of prison, parole and probation. "I went to prison, but it's not who I am," said Haven, who is executive director of Justice Maryland in Baltimore and a leading advocate of voting rights and criminal justice reform. Haven left prison in 2001. Since then she has completed parole and probation, raised a teenage son, and helped change attitudes about people returning home from prison.
Before the new law was enacted, more than 110,000 Marylanders were disenfranchised because of felony convictions, one out of 37 adult residents. The state was one of only 11 with a lifetime disenfranchisement policy that permanently stripped rights from some people because of their felony convictions. Among those with felony records in Maryland, nearly half have completed their full sentences, while another third are on probation or parole.
Nationally, 670,000 men and women leave prison each year and face obstacles to finding employment, housing and social services. Most have also been stripped of their most basic rights of citizenship and join the nearly 4 million others who wait, despite their release from prison, to regain the right to vote. Many never will.
Returning to one's community after an extended absence can be a difficult transition. Add the stigma associated with a past criminal conviction, and the reintegration process can be less than welcoming. The lack of a comprehensive social safety net contributes to a re-arrest rate of 67 percent nationally, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
For many people returning from prison, basic human needs, such as food and shelter, take priority over voting rights, but civic engagement is a crucial next step that influences the likelihood of successful reintegration and rehabilitation. Research shows that, among those who have been arrested, 27 percent of nonvoters were re-arrested, compared with 12 percent of voters. Voting promotes public safety because people who vote feel more connected to their communities and avoid falling back into crime.
Maryland now joins a national trend to expand voting rights to people with felony convictions. In April, Florida paved the way to restore the vote to potentially hundreds of thousands of people who have completed their felony terms and previously were barred permanently from voting. Last November, Rhode Island residents voted in favor of a measure that removed the ban on voting by people under felony probation or parole supervision. Since 1997, 16 states have reformed their disenfranchisement laws. Maryland's change aligns its policies with 38 other states and the District of Columbia that allow voting upon completion of sentence, if not sooner. Virginia, regrettably, is one of two states that permanently ban voting by anyone with a felony record of any sort.
The success in Maryland should be celebrated not only by those whom the law will affect but by everyone who values community and democratic principles. The political discourse is richer when we expand the diversity of voices participating in civic life.
-- Kara Gotsch
The writer is director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice research and advocacy organization. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.