A freshman delegate in the Maryland General Assembly is championing a bill that a deep personal meaning to him: the restoration of full voting rights for ex-offenders.
The bill would remove the obstacles that are in the way of an estimated 40,000 ex-offenders in Maryland who want to vote.
For Del. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), who has been arrested on the streets of East Baltimore more times than he can remember, he recognizes that he could have been one of them.
The former teenage drug dealer is the lead House sponsor on a bill that seeks to expand the voting rights for former felons who have been prohibited from voting in Maryland. Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are unable to cast ballots because of prior felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice think tank.
“Because they are not engaged in the process, they get left behind,” McCray said of the ex-offenders. “We have to figure out how to engage them in the process.”
The legislation, which has 51 co-sponsors in the House, will be taken up on Thursday in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee, where Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), expects passage. Conway is chairman of the committee and the bill’s lead sponsor.
Maryland joins Minnesota this year in pursuit of legislation that would remove obstacles from former felons who want to vote.
Current law in Maryland prohibits individuals with a felony conviction from voting until after they have finished parole, probation and paid restitution. Advocates say many of the former felons who are eligible to vote are uncertain of their voting status. They fear of being accused of voter fraud and being arrested again.
Conway described the current law as a form a voter suppression.
“The criteria doesn’t make sense,” Conway said. “The debt has been paid.”
She said it is time for Maryland to remove the obstacle.
“Simplifying the law so that once you are out, you can vote will make the democratic process more accessible to tens of thousands of Marylanders who are currently shut out,” she said.
If approved, Maryland would have a law similar to those found in the District, and 13 other states, including Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where former felons can vote after they are released from prison.
Perry Hopkins, 53, who has been in and out of prison for the last 19 years, said he does not feel like a “fully part of the general citizenry” without the right to vote.
“There is enough discrimination against us, and feeling alienated leads to recidivism,” said Hopkins, who is a community organizer with Communities United, a Baltimore-based group that works on justice issues. “I served my sentence. I paid my debt to society. Why am I still doing time?”
McCray, 32, who is serving in his first elected office, said for years he had been reticent about sharing his past run-ins with the law. The first time he shared it publicly, he said, was at the age of 25.
McCray spent his teenage years on the streets of East Baltimore selling drugs. He served 10 months at a youth correctional facility in Western Maryland.
“I wasn’t home for 30 days before I was locked back up again,” McCray said about his serving 10-month stint behind bars as a 16 year old.
His last brush with the law - a drugs and weapons charge - landed him in a Baltimore city jail cell on his 18th birthday.
It wasn’t until McCray’s mother called the state Department of Labor to get information about apprenticeships the he turned his life around.
His mother, who he calls his “savior,” gave him an edict: join the military or enroll in an apprenticeship.
He signed up for a program with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where he currently serves as an organizer. He learned a trade. They paid for his education at Baltimore Community College.
By the age of 20, he bought his first house. A landlord, he now owns seven of them.
“I always had a very, very good entrepreneurial spirit, I just needed to apply it in the right direction,” McCray said after a break from a recent House session. “And that entrepreneurial spirit is what drove me towards the community activism and then the political activism.”