In a surprising move, Attorney General Eric Holder has teamed up with Tea Party-backed Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee to fight against felon disenfranchisement — the reality of a person convicted of a felony subsequently losing certain civil rights due to the felony conviction. This group of strange bedfellows is primarily concerned with the voting rights of those previously convicted of felonies.
According to news reports, 11 states deny or restrict voting rights to persons who have been under some form of correctional control (i.e., incarceration, probation, parole). This equates to approximately 5.8 million disenfranchised felons. In states like Florida that have particularly onerous felon disenfranchisement laws, upwards of 10 percent of the population is barred from voting. According to Attorney General Holder, 1 in 13 black American adults are prohibited from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws; 1 in 5 in Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida.
Now, with Attorney General Holders’ legacy as a justice reformer in question, he has stepped up his work to revise some of these harmful laws, which some have suggested actually encourage repeat crime and recidivism. On February 11, 2014 he and Senators Paul and Lee participated in a forum at the Georgetown Law School to discuss the issues of mandatory minimum sentencing, prison expansion, and felon disenfranchisement.
While this is a laudable step in the right direction, most recent public policy discussions concerning American criminal justice reform have tended to cherry pick small groups of offenders to help. This group, as others, has focused on nonviolent drug offenders. For example, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), has also focused almost exclusively on drug offenders. Even the Obama administration has their favorite group to help: nonviolent, minority crack cocaine offenders who have served long sentences under the old, draconian crack cocaine sentencing guidelines.
Courtesy of Student Life and Senior Sports Editor Alex Leichenger
America’s criminal justice system is racially and socially oppressive, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argued in her recent speech on campus.
Addressing a crowd of undergraduates, law students, adults from the community, and local middle and high school students, Alexander, author of the 2010 bestselling book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” said most Americans believe their justice system only requires minor tinkering.
But, Alexander said, the facts that prison corporations are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and many rural communities are economically reliant on prisons has led her to believe that more fundamental social movement is required to reform the system.
“If you’re not directly impacted by this system, you can easily go your whole life without having any idea of what is going on,” Alexander said.
The Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom in Anheuser-Busch Hall was packed to capacity for Alexander’s speech, and extra chairs were needed even in the overflow room. It was the keynote address at the conference, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Washington University School of Law’s Clinical Education Program.
Alexander talked about how Americans can turn on their televisions and see symbols of African-American social progress like President Barack Obama and the first family but that those examples are not fully representative.
“But then you drive less than a mile from the White House, and you find the other America,” Alexander said.
“Today, millions of children in America grow up believing that one day, they too will go to jail,” she added. “In our poorest, most segregated communities, young people are shuttled from our decrepit, under-funded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”