Disenfranchised Felons and the Right to Vote
Most states take away prisoner’s right to vote, as the right to vote is a state rather than a federal matter. The two states that still allow for it are Maine and Vermont. Thirteen states take away the right to vote for life, though most reinstate the right once the sentence has been served. Eighteen countries throughout Europe never deny their prisoners the right to vote, and Canada considers the practice to be undemocratic. As black men are more often incarcerated than white men, across America there are one in eight black men who aren’t allowed to vote. The NAACP has taken on the case, to the chagrin of crime victims, who don’t want their victimizers to be able to make changes that affect them. It is most likely that prisoners (or ex-prisoners) who have their right to vote reinstated would probably vote Democrat. Even so, Democratic party members are not fighting to help them – this might be because this group won’t be financially capable of donations anytime in the near future. Many felons are under the impression that the right to vote was taken away permanently, even in states where their rights are reinstated upon completion of their sentence. Therefore, many felons are registering to vote as soon as they discover that they’re eligible.
Governor Mark Warner of Virginia ended his four-year term this year after having restored voting rights to 3,414 ex-felons. Virginia is one state in which felons permanently lose the right to vote. After a three to five year waiting period, felons may petition the governor to have their rights restored. Warner’s goal was to “reintegrate them fully into society, and part of that means getting your voting rights back.” Warner granted these restorations on a case-by-case basis, rather than putting into law a blanket restoration policy. Governor-elect Timothy M. Kaine intends to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, continuing to restore rights according to each individual case. Warner, who is rumored to be running for governor, will have to answer to his liberal policy during his campaign.
2006 has been a busy year for prisoner/ex-felon voting rights. In Florida, legislators unanimously passed a bill that would require county jails to assist ex-felons in the restoration of their voting rights. Florida has the highest number of disenfranchised voters in the nation. Kentucky has a policy that requires ex-felons to write a statement that tells why they deserve to have their voting rights restored. This would not be as much of a deterrent as the required letters of reference. Unfortunately, 90% of these individuals are unaware that there is a procedure for regaining their voting rights. New York is yet another state where prisoners lose their voting rights, but it seems that they’re being counted by the Census Bureau as part of a voting district nevertheless. In Tennessee, the process of restoration is long and complicated, and a bill was introduced to streamline the process. It waits only on the approval of the government.
The Mississippi Constitution lists 10 crimes that, if committed, will result in the loss of voting rights. The ACLU is fighting against the inclusion of 11 additional crimes that were added through an attorney general in 2004. An Arizona law that requires first-time felons who have completed their sentences to pay all fines, fees and other costs in order to restore their voting rights is being compared to the old “poll tax”. In election news, Rhode Island approved a measure that will allow individuals under felony probation and parole supervision to be able to vote.
Battered Women and the Fight for Clemency
Clemency refers to the power of an executive within the government to intervene in the sentencing of a criminal defendant when the sentencing will result in an injustice. It is the last form of relief that can be implemented when all other options and appeals have been exhausted. According to the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, since 1978, 104 women in 23 states have received clemency. Reasons to give clemency to battered women who kill include: counsel’s ignorance of special circumstances that apply to battered women often results in the denial of a fair trial; judges often have flexibility in sentencing and more often than not use it to sentence women too harshly; “Battered Women Syndrome tends to exclude women who are not white or who are socio-economically disadvantaged; women sentenced prior to the groundbreaking Hughes trial had rarely gathered evidence of the abuse that could be used at trial.
In Michigan, the Governor has the power to grant clemency for any sentence except treason. Susan Fair founded the Michigan Battered Women’s Clemency Project in 1991. One member of the group is a woman named Carol Jacobsen, who experienced abuse by her husband when she was just 17 years old and pregnant. This is the case with many of the women who joined Fair’s advocacy group. Joined by volunteer attorneys, she circulated questionnaires to incarcerated women. In 1995, it became a pet project of the Michigan ACLU. The road toward gaining clemency has been rough indeed: In March 1995, the first petition for clemency was filed with the Michigan Parole Board for Violet Allen. In just six weeks, Governor Engler denied the petition without an explanation. The next petition was also denied. The next four petitions were filed in 1998 and still have not been resolved, as the parole board and governor have shown little interest in the cause.
The movement to grant clemency is also gaining momentum in California. Two new state laws have passed since 2000. One requires the parole board to review petitions for clemency and to assign priority to determining if she committed the crime as a result of “battered women’s syndrome”. The other new law reviews the cases of women convicted before 1992 so they can apply to have their cases reopened if they believe they suffered from battered women’s syndrome at the time of the crime. As a result of the new laws, there were thirty-six cases reviewed; 14 women indeed had battered women’s syndrome, and eight of were recommended for parole (rather than clemency). An epidemic of waning sympathy for battered women slowed the fight for clemency in the 1990’s. With the release of Cheryl Sellers in 2002, the hope is that her case will draw attention to the plight of incarcerated battered women once again.
The Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women filed 18 petitions for clemency on May 30, 2000. This group includes lawyers, activists, formerly incarcerated women and law students, and they focus on filing clemency petitions for battered women throughout Illinois. In 1999, the Illinois Clemency Project filed 12 petitions, 4 of which where approved by Governor Edgar. In addition to the regular volunteers, petitions have also been prepared by students and faculty at the University of Chicago Law School, the University of Illinois Law School, DePaul University School of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Northeastern Illinois University. To conclude with the Michigan group, they have installed a website petition on behalf of Melissa L. Chapman. According to the petition, Chapman was beaten, bitten, burned with cigarettes, spit and urinated on, raped, and suffered a variety of other tortures and indignities by her drug-addicted boyfriend. Thus far, the petition has garnered 3,291 signatures.