Fairness and Felons: A Push to Enfranchise Prisoners ; A Controversial Movement to Expand Rights to Prisoners and Ex-Cons Could Enlarge - and Shift - the Electorate

Article excerpt

Depending on where one sits, Joseph "Jazz" Hayden is the Spiderman of a new civil rights movement or a danger to the underpinnings of the judicial system.

He's an ex-con. He served 10 years on a manslaughter rap that he insists was self-defense. While in prison he came to a realization: Convicts that are "stripped of their freedom and at the mercy of their keepers" are probably the least powerful people in this country. So he put together a jailhouse think tank to find a way to change the balance. Its conclusion: Get prisoners to vote. The problem is, only two states - Maine and Vermont - now allow it.

So Mr. Hayden's turned his freedom into a crusade. He's at the forefront of a movement to restore voting rights to felons and ex- felons. And it's had some success. Since 1996, eight states have made it easier for ex-cons and probationers to vote.

To conservatives, it's an ill-advised move that will help lawbreakers become lawmakers by giving them a say in elections. To supporters, it would restore justice to a system that disenfranchises a largely minority segment of the population

The issue has important consequences: Had Florida's former felons had the vote, for example, it's long been speculated that Al Gore would now be president - with big policy ramifications in a post-9/ 11 world.

The debate also represents a culture clash. "It pits two social trends against each other - the tough-on-crime movement against the ... expansion of civil rights," says Christopher Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.

The notion of excluding lawbreakers from civil society's rites has, in Mr. Uggen's words, "truly ancient origins." It's tied to banishment for offending the king. When the US was founded, many state constitu-tions withheld voting rights for certain crimes, such as treason. But it wasn't until the 1850s, 1860s, and Reconstruction that the modern notion of felony disenfranchisement took hold, particularly in the South. It was an effort to restrict the voting rights of freed slaves, but also entwined with the movement to root out corruption.

The result: Forty-eight states now forbid felons in prison from voting. For ex-cons, though, it's a different picture. Since the liberalization movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and another wave starting in 1996, all but 13 states let them pull the lever.

A recent study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal- justice advocacy organization, found that as a result of the changes since 1996, 471,000 ex-cons have had voting rights restored. But the study also estimates that 3.9 million Americans - 1 in 50 adults - can't vote. And because of the racial imbalance in the criminal justice system, a large percentage of them are minority. …


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