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Democracy, Racism and Disenfranchisement

One in seven black men are currently or permanently prevented from voting because they are imprisoned or are ex-felons, according to a report released in January, 1997, by the Sentencing Project in Washington DC.

There are an estimated 10.4 million voting age black men in the U.S. An estimated 1.46 million have lost the right to vote. Of this disenfranchised group, 950,000 are ineligible to vote because they are in prison or on probation or parole. Another 510,000 are permanently barred in the 13 states that revoke the right to vote for life for most convicted felons.

Forty-six states prohibit felons from voting while jailed. Only Maine, Massachusetts, Utah and Vermont allow prisoners to vote. Thirty-one states bar felons from voting while they are on probation or parole. The thirteen states that permanently deprive the right to vote from virtually all felons are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming.

"These figures are truly shocking," said Barbara Wright, director of the voting rights project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. "Voting is what makes you a citizen. It's tragic to contemplate the creation of an entire class of native-born non-citizens. This seems to be almost an inevitable consequence of the tremendous increases in the incarceration of African-American men."

The study also noted an increase in the disparity between blacks and whites in imprisonment rates. In 1988 blacks were 6.88 times more likely to face imprisonment than whites. That disparity increased to 7.66 times in 1994. Blacks make up 51 percent of the 1.1 million state and federal prisoners, the study said, while comprising only 14 percent of the nation's population.

"You have a prison system where black men are back in servitude, along with an economy where blacks are in low paying jobs," said David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "So it all ends up in the minds of black Americans that the system is basically rigged to diminish their political power and recreate the plantation system with prisons."

The Sentencing Project is a well regarded nonprofit organization headed by PLN subscriber Marc Mauer. In earlier work, the Sentencing Project reported that one in three black men in their twenties were under control of the criminal justice system on any given day, either in prison or in jail or on probation or parole.

In the May '94 issue of PLN we reprinted Andrew Shapiro's article, "Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy." In the January and December '96 issues of PLN, we reported on Baker v. Cuomo, 58 F.3d 814 (2nd Cir. 1995) and Baker v. Pataki, 85 F.3d 917 (2nd Cir : 1996)(en banc) which were about NY prisoners challenging racial disenfranchisement. The Sentencing Project report covered in this article will be extremely useful to anyone litigating this issue.

Copies of the report, "Intended and Unintended Consequences: State Racial Disparities in Imprisonment"'(25 pages, Jan '97) are available for $8 each from: The Sentencing Project; 918 F Street, Suite 501; Washington, DC 20004. Also available for $8 are: "Truths, Half-Truths, and Lies: Myths and Realities About Crime and Punishment." (1996), and "Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later" (1995).

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