Lawyers' Committee Hails Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.’s Call to Repeal Felony Disenfranchisement Laws

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Attorney General Eric Holder

[Justice]

 

Holder Is Right In Seeking To End Disenfranchisement Of Felons

The Lawyers' Committee applauds Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.’s call to action to repeal felony disenfranchisement laws on February 11th at the Georgetown University Law Center.

He called on state and local elected officials, experts, lawyers, and the American people to work together to repeal state felony disenfranchisement laws throughout the country and to ensure that these laws do not continue to be used to disproportionately deny individuals of color the right to vote. Describing the laws as “unwise,” “unjust,” and “not in keeping with our democratic values,” Attorney General Holder said the laws’ disparate impact on minority communities is “disproportionate and unacceptable,” and “echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past.” In a special nod to the role of lawyers in securing civil rights, Attorney General Holder emphasized the unique duty of lawyers in the fight for criminal justice reform.

Participation in the democratic process is more than a symbolic right of all American citizens: restoration of basic rights is essential to the rehabilitation of criminal offenders. Attorney General Holder impressed that by perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, felony disenfranchisement laws are counterproductive to the purposes of the criminal justice system and may actually increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.

“The attorney general’s strong leadership in calling for the repeal of felony disenfranchisement laws across the country is an extraordinary signal to states and the American people,” said Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “This is the latest in a series of instances in the past year in which the Administration has taken great leadership on criminal justice issues. From the statements of Attorney General Holder to the American Bar Association in August, to the implementation of their policies, it shows that they have heard the cries for reforms within the nation’s over-racialized criminal justice system.”

An estimated 5.8 million Americans are denied the fundamental right to vote, the very heart of America’s democratic system of government, due to current or previous felony convictions. The disparate impact on African Americans is shocking: about 2.2 million black citizens – nearly 1 in 13 African American adults – are banned from the voting box because of these laws. Today, 11 states have restrictions on voting rights after the individual has served his/her time in prison and is no longer on probation or parole.

For five decades, the Lawyers’ Committee has been at the forefront of the legal struggle to achieve equality and protect advances in voting rights for racial and ethnic minorities and other traditionally disenfranchised groups.  As part of these efforts, the Lawyers’ Committee litigated Johnson v. Bush, a challenge to a Florida’s law denying the vote to more than 600,000 persons with criminal convictions, a disproportionate number of whom were people of color. Regrettably, the court did not allow a trial on claims that the law violates U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

Last year, the Lawyers’ Committee was one of a group of non-profit organizations to issue a white paper entitled “Democracy Imprisoned: A Review of the Prevalence and Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement laws in the United States” to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in their review of the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “The permanent disenfranchisement of individuals with felony convictions is an explicit removal of the fundamental right to vote in our democratic system,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee. “It bears no relation to the purposes of criminal punishment and permanently isolates the individual from the democratic process.”

In addition, the Lawyers’ Committee’s Criminal Justice Initiative seeks to reverse the mass incarceration of individuals of color, which has reach crisis proportions amounting to one of the biggest civil rights threats to Americans of all colors, and especially African Americans, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic minorities.

“The Lawyers’ Committee advocates for legislative efforts that restore equality to both the criminal justice system and voting rights,” said Lawyers’ Committee Public Policy Director Tanya Clay House. “Congress can answer the attorney general’s call to action, and lead the nation by example, by reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act. This bill would restore the voting rights in federal elections to those disenfranchised because of criminal convictions.”

The Lawyers' Committee has been fighting for racial justice and equality over 50 years since its 1963 founding at the request of President John F. Kennedy.  We applaud the attorney general’s call to action to states and local leaders, and vow to do our part as a civil rights legal organization to restore equality and fairness to the fundamental right to vote and to the nation’s criminal justice system.

 

For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org 

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