Attorney General Eric Holder testifies Thursday on Capitol Hill.
(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
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
"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.
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
"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
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