How to Ensure Justice Involvement Isn’t a Barrier to Voting

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Photo by Abby P. via Flickr

Earlier this month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision requiring people in Florida with felony convictions to pay all fines and fees before becoming eligible to vote.

The Court’s decision harkens back to late 19th-century “poll taxes,” designed to exclude Black Americans from the political process. If it stands, wealthier Floridians who can afford to pay their fines will still be able to vote in the upcoming election, while hundreds of thousands of poorer, disproportionately Black and Latino people will be disenfranchised.

The decision defied the will of Florida voters, who overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, a 2018 ballot initiative allowing people with felony convictions to vote once they had completed their sentences. Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor had acted quickly to redefine sentence completion to include compliance with outstanding fines and fees.

Judge Adalberto Jordan, who wrote for the court’s minority, said he doubted that the decision “will be viewed as kindly by history.”

The barriers to exercising the right to vote may still be overcome for an estimated 32,000 Black and Latino Florida voters with felony convictions.  This month several donors, including philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. donated $16 million to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help pay the fines of—and register to vote—those who would otherwise not have been able to vote because they owed fines.

As someone who has run adult and juvenile justice agencies, it has always struck me that helping people who have broken the law participate in an election was a great way to promote civic engagement. I applaud Mayor Bloomberg, and other donors like LeBron James and the Miami Dolphins, for helping re-enfranchise tens of thousands of Floridians.

But right now, there are many overlooked ways for appointed and elected officials around the country to bolster voting by people with criminal convictions within current law.

For example, there are 631,000 people incarcerated in jails in the United States, three quarters of whom are pretrial and, therefore, often eligible to vote. The same is true for young people incarcerated in juvenile facilities. Youth prosecuted in juvenile court are “adjudicated delinquent,” rather than “convicted,” and as such can often vote.

Corrections officials, mayors and governors who would like to increase the franchise could launch voter registration efforts and help incarcerated people obtain absentee ballots.

When I ran youth corrections for Washington, D.C., as our teachers began discussing the 2006 mayoral election in social studies class, our youth became interested in voting. Not only did we obtain absentee ballots for those 18 or older, but we helped them organize a mayoral debate in our facility attended by about a half dozen candidates, including the ultimate winner—Adrian Fenty.

Likewise, last year, six District Attorney candidates participated in a debate in Boston’s Suffolk County Jail moderated by those incarcerated there.

Officials are often unfamiliar with voting rights of those with felony convictions or options they have to help them vote. For example, when I was probation commissioner in New York City, we ran a voter registration campaign in our probation offices.

Many of our staff and clients were unaware that New Yorkers on probation could vote. So was the city’s official information call center, which had been erroneously telling people on probation that they were prohibited from voting.

Unlike New York, most states require people to complete probation or parole before they can vote. But even in such states, elected and appointed officials have levers they can pull to increase the franchise.

Many jurisdictions allow people to be released early from probation or parole if they’re in good standing. In New York City, we used early discharges as a way to incentivize progress, increasing early discharge requests to the courts nearly six-fold. A study found that people discharged early from NYC probation had lower reconviction rates than those serving full terms.

This is no small matter.

In 27 states, there are approximately 2.5 million people on probation and parole who can’t vote until they’re discharged. This presents prosecutors, judges and parole authorities with a rare “win-win” opportunity: By discharging people early from supervision, not only would they reward them for good behavior, but they could re-enfranchise millions of people.

Finally, governors can take sweeping actions to keep their constituents from being robbed of their votes. In 2017, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that he had used his clemency powers to restore voting rights to 156,221 Virginians, barely nosing out Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s 155,315 clemencies, for the gubernatorial clemency record.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Felony disenfranchisement laws have an ugly history in the U.S., with many originating during Reconstruction to rob formerly enslaved people of their vote. Activists should absolutely continue to fight for broader enfranchisement at the ballot box and in the courts.

But with a little creativity, there are plenty of ways that elected and appointed officials can expand voting by people enmeshed in the criminal justice system right now.

see also: Activists Help FL felons register by Monday deadline

Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, former commissioner of  New York City Probation, and former director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. His twitter handle is @VinSchiraldi

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