Attorney General Eric Holder: Change laws to let ex-convicts vote

11:48 AM, Feb 11, 2014   |    comments
Attorney General Eric Holder testifies Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Attorney General Eric Holder is calling Tuesday for the repeal of state laws that restrict the voting rights of millions of former prison inmates.

In a speech to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder said it is "time to fundamentally re-think laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.''

"These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,'' the attorney general said. "By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, the laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.''

The proposal is an extension of a broader plan first announced by Holder last year to revamp the U.S. criminal justice system, including the re-integration of thousands of former offenders who are returning to communities every year from prison.

Holder said former offender "continue to face significant obstacles,'' citing laws in 11 states that bar millions from voting.

"Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans ... are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions,'' Holder said. "That's more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states. And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.''

He said 2.2 million African Americans, or nearly one in 13 African-American adults, are banned from voting because of the laws. In three states - Florida, Kentucky and Virginia - that ratio is one in five.

"The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures intended to stigmatize, shame and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime,'' Holder said.

Since 1997, Holder said 23 states have enacted changes, including in Virginia where last year the voting rights of former inmates with non-violent felony convictions began to be restored.

"I applaud those who have already shown leadership in raising awareness and helping to address this issue,'' Holder said, citing the efforts of Democrats and Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. "His vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines.''

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